Kinnikinnick Farm

The more I visit small farms, the more I am impressed by the keen intellect and creativity of the folks who follow a dream and farm.  Besides (or in addition to) a desire to interact with nature on a molecular level, I have noticed farmers I have met have an eye for color, an appreciation for history, and most are visionaries.  All of this proved true on a recent visit to Kinnikinnick Farm.

Before my hubby John and I struck out for Caledonia, Illinois on a gray, April Saturday I did some on-line research about the farm we planned to visit.  I read articles about Kinnikinnick Farm and followed links and learned of references to the word Kinnikinnick in Boone County, Illinois.  Kinnikinnick is the name of the local creek and nature preserve, as well as a mixture of dried leaves and bark smoked by the Algonquin Indians in days gone by.  I wonder what effect that had on a person’s brain.  My surfing of the internets also told me that Kinnikinnick Farm has been written about quite a lot, so I had better find a way to make this interesting.  Lucky for me, David and Susan Cleverdon made it easy.  The farm was charming, even on a blustery, wickedly cold spring day.  David was terribly generous with his time and tea.  The few minutes I spent with Susan made me want to chat longer.

When John and I arrived, there was a good-sized truck backed up to the front porch.  A local business was delivering and installing a wood stove in the parlor.  We assumed David and Susan were preoccupied for the moment, so John took the opportunity to take a few photographs.  I walked around and studied “things I would paint” if I were here to paint.  First the lone, pale, brown egg that sat next to a folded note on the wrought iron table on the front porch.  The notepaper was pinned down by a rusty rock.  Next, the blue and green coated-wire egg baskets on the wood table around the corner, then the Kinnikinnick Farm sign over the door on the red barn against a cold, metal sky.  In the distance; large, attractive, eggplant purple tents with gray tops perched on Easter green grass.  This turned out to be a very paintable place.

I approached the woodstove deliverers and asked them to let someone know we were loitering around the barnyard.  Susan met me at the side door and I instantly liked her sparkly eyes and energy.  She invited me in and said David would be right back.  As though on cue, he drove up and we met him  in the driveway and introduced ourselves.  David told us about the first years after buying the farm; how they traveled out from the city on weekends and slowly (really, really, slowly) reclaimed the “lawn” over a three year period.

Lawns are BIG on farms and the grass and weeds were waist high.  They popped tractor tires on debris so often that they had to buy a second set to leave at the local shop each weekend so they could pick them up, repaired, on
their way out from Hyde Park.

The farm’s original owner was a Norwegian by the name of Johnson, and the old farmhouse has been lovingly restored with the help of Swedish carpenters who honored the home’s heritage.  The Cleverdons bought a hundred and seventy acres in the late 1980s (for the same price as a 2 bedroom condo in Hyde Park) and the house and barn were thrown in for good measure.  Anyway, we talked outdoors for a while until the wind began to howl and then David invited us in for tea.  On the way to the front door, David pocketed the lone, brown egg off the table.  He handed it off to Susan on the way into the house and they chatted briefly about it. 

We crossed the porch and entered the front door into a room of rough, chocolaty, cabin walls lit by watery spring sun.  These fine logs walls were discovered behind plaster during restoration and the decision was made to uncover them.  Excellent decision.  There was a row of pottery vases on the windowsill; each piece different and topped with a found bird’s nest.  A beautiful Scandinavian-flavored, Grandfather clock stood on the other side of the room along with an antique gumball machine.  There was a heavy round table under a petite chandelier.  On the table, wide bowl of wooden, hand painted eggs in primary colors.  So many potential paintings!

David put the kettle on in the fabulous kitchen of windows.  We met five well-behaved dogs, two a rare Polish breed of herders, called Tatras.  (If you find yourself in need of a 110 pound lap dog with tons of creamy wool and a head like a smiling holiday ham, I recommend a Tatra.)  The wind picked up and it began to snow sideways, which always makes one grateful for tea in a warm place.  Susan brought some old photographs in and then she had to leave for an appointment.

Way Back When


David started talking and we started listening.  I confess that after about four minutes, I found myself wishing I had scheduled an interview about the Civil Rights movement in the sixties and seventies in Chicago.  David worked in volatile state politics followed by a stint at the Chicago Board of Trade.  Susan was in fundraising, real estate, and the wallpaper business in Hyde Park.  Some Bad Stuff happened in the middle and David and Susan found themselves (each with two kids from previous marriages) in a thirty foot camper on the farm property…  Only to be given two weeks to vacate by local officials.  Apparently, temporary homes weren’t welcome at the time.  David said Susan marched into the local government office dressed to the nines and asked, “Do you really think anyone like ME would live in THAT?”  She managed to convince them it was a weekend camping spot.  Eventually, they discovered a barn of fine construction, had a walk-in cooler put on the ground floor for the produce, raised the rafters and roof up four feet, and voila!  The family moved into a new apartment in the top half of a barn.  It is still a sweet apartment with light hardwood floors and nice windows.  John and I saw it and said simultaneously, “This is all you really need.”

After a whole lot of sweat and dedication and planning, the official farm business opened in 1993.  The Cleverdons began selling their wares in Farmer’s Markets in Skokie and Rockford.  They had decided they weren’t prepared to deal with livestock (being city folks and having no experience to draw from)
and weren’t ready to be a CSA farm.  (CSA = Community Sustainable Agriculture) Instead, they decided to sell at the local Markets and see what happened.  In 1994 they made nothing and called it the Zero Year.  They began to keep spreadsheets in Lotus 1-2-3 and sorted them and tracked what they ran out of, what they came home with, and what people seemed to want.  They landed on tomatoes and greens.  Around that time, a friend  gave them some seeds to plant; kale and cavolo nero.  These new greens got noticed by Mary Ellen Diaz who “wanted them all” despite a slightly buggy, wormy appearance.  Greens can be washed, so who cares about a bug or three?

Note:  When I finish this article, I plan to nominate Ms. Diaz for Sainthood.  She is a highly trained chef (think Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and Le Ecole des Arts Culinaires in Lyon) who now runs a business called First Slice that you NEED to read about.  Back then, Mary Ellen Diaz worked for some well-known Chicago eateries (like the Ritz-Carlton and North Pond Café) and ended up at Lettuce Entertain You as the Corporate Chef. 

Anyway, things started looking up when the greens and tomatoes caught on, both at the Farmer’s Markets and fine Chicago eateries.  The Cleverdons went to Florence, Italy to a Central Market and discovered spigariello, a primitive broccoli.  One thing led to another, and they began buying Italian seeds via a small seed company by piggy-backing onto their orders.  We heard a story about a wedding, before which the happy couple planted a living arch and a garden on the Cleverdon’s farm.  They had their wedding in the middle of it and the arch is still there.  How sweet is that?  And there was a fabulous photograph of a dinner called “Outstanding in the Field.”  Long tables end to end laden with food prepared by remarkable chefs, coppery sunset, very peaceful.  I mentioned that John and I had 22 acres in North Carolina and we occasionally toyed with the idea of some farming.  Our ever-gracious host didn’t physically flinch, but the way his eyes rolled back in his head for a nanosecond conveyed a distinct “You’re out of your minds” telepathically.  I caught it like a fastball.

David told another story about venerated Chicago Chef Paul Kahan (of Blackbird, Avec, and Publican renown) and his wife visiting for a weekend, along with acclaimed chef and writer Paula Disbrowe.  It was a winter weekend (not unlike our day there) and they all spent it in the kitchen cooking and had a wonderful time.  I am willing to bet that was SOME cooking.  And Kinnikinnick Farm has been selling to prominent Chicago restaurants ever since.  It also happened that Paula Disbrowe was working for Featherdown Farms at the time.  (I will provide links to these tangential stories… quite fascinating.)

Featherdown Farms is a Dutch company modeled after the agriturismi in Italy.  In a nutshell, folks can vacation on a farm and stay in a very modern, clean tent and unplug from city life.  These are no ordinary tents, my friends.  Remember the eggplant tents with gray tops that I mentioned way back at the beginning of this story?  Inside are light wood finishes and kitchens with wood stoves.  Each tent sleeps a family of five in (you guessed it) feather down beds.  Yum.  Featherdown, Inc. selected two U.S. farms to try the business model.  The farm in New York State opened immediately  and has done pretty well.  Kinnikinnick Farm hosts are ready and willing… but went through proper channels and the project has been mired in red tape, regulations, health laws, and ADA requirements for quite a while now.

David told us the story of their learning curve.  Talk about stamina and determination!  From a requirement for UL listed wood stoves, to regulations about plumbing.  Did you know that equipping a tent with a toilet means you have to also provide a hot water heater for hand washing?  The fellow  who owns the Featherdown business said he did not want his tents to look like an American hotel room.  To get around the hot water requirement, the Cleverdons built a beautiful wooden bathhouse.  As David put it, the Adirondacks meet Denmark in the bath house.  It’s true – and quite nice.  Very clean lines, pale stains, beautiful wood, windows at the top, built by a son.  But a bathhouse requires ADA compliant access, so now they have to build access ramps from the tents across a field, to the bathroom.  There is a ramp up into the bath house, so it’s not as though no thought was given to it.  There have been lawyers, inspectors, plumbers, electricians, inspectors, more inspectors, and a few more lawyers involved.  Really, if you could see these tents, you  would understand how ludicrous this all is.  The Cleverdons understand and respect health laws – they are in the food business, after all, and want to protect their customers.  They understand and respect compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, especially since they have family  members with disabilities.  (But ramps around a farm field?  Really?  What if your tractor needs to get through?)

These bright, interesting, entrepreneurial folks just want to let people stay on their farm in a beautiful tent so they can live simply for a week and show their kids where food comes from.  They just want to let families experience country quiet and fresh cooking for a bit.  The journey has been long and fraught with snags; nevertheless, they hope to open their tents this summer.  (I would go there in a flash.  There is something special about this place,  I tell you.)  David showed us Featherdown Farm brochures and pictures, but we skipped touring a tent because it was freezing cold and wet and we didn’t want to be the two people to muck it all up in two minutes.  We did get a tour of the chicken lot, the hoop greenhouses, the barns, and the bath house.

The chickens have a lot of space and the particular breed lays blue eggs.  That sounds like a cool way to start your day, doesn’t it, with a blue-shelled egg breakfast?  That would be worth the effort of a three minute poaching and an egg cup, something I don’t DO.  Not now, anyway… for blue eggs, I would begin.  Unfortunately, I did not write down the chicken breed.  (To tell the truth I could have asked, but did not want to take my hands out of my pockets again.  By this point the temperature had dropped 15 degrees, the snow was whipping around corners, and the wind must have been gusting to forty miles per hour on this lovely mid-April day.)  Everything alive was longing for spring and my ears hurt from the wind and my camera had been acting up all day.  I tried to mess around with the camera but my fingers rejected the idea, so I had to bring those little sketches home in my head.  John had his camera and got some great shots for me!

The hoop greenhouses were warm and cozy, and contained long tables filled with little pots of tiny, fresh greens and herbs.  I stuck my face in a pot of basil and wished for a sun warmed red tomato to go with it.  There are few smells that transport one instantly to summer the way fresh basil does!  I wanted to stay there forever in the humid warmth, smelling basil and tender leaves of lettuce, but my hosts might have thought that odd and/or inconvenient.  David told us how the hoop houses were built and heated and we walked back outside, wind grabbing the doors from our hands, pushing us around.

We visited four chickens in the little chicken infirmary.  David explained that these chickens were the weaker birds at the bottom of the pecking order.  They were separated to allow them to recover from the trauma of attack, and would be allowed to roam freely once spring arrived.  (Most farmers let nature take its course…  I liked the whole weaker chicken rescue operation.)  My “like” meter moved up a notch.

Next, we shuffled into a big old barn, where we met the newest additions to Kinnikinnick Farm; two goats and three sheep.  The Cleverdons have decided to give that livestock business a try after all.  David said he likes the daily caring for animals and the other consciousness a person shares with an animal during that ritual of care.  He said produce farming is all one shot, but the animals go on and on and on all year round and he and Susan like that about them.  “Like” meter up another notch.  They like the different type of care and attention animals need.  So they are adding a flock of broilers this year, too, with a movable, solar-powered electric fence.  This keeps coyotes, fox, and raccoons out while keeping birds in.

They are planting a finesse garden; getting back to some of the things they planted in the beginning but had to give up to focus on the money makers.  This year, there will be three or four acres of melons, English peas, cabbages, and eggplant and escarole, arugula and lettuce in addition to the good old tomatoes and greens.  (Assuming this snowy wind lets up before July.  It’s questionable this year.)  There will be 300 foot long beds, seven rows to a bed, and a more diverse set of crops that can be fun to play around with and develop.

We moved on and toured the barn with that nice first apartment, saw where the retail outlet is during the summer, the employee lockers for the seasonal hires.  Mary Ellen Diaz makes the pesto from Kinnikinnick Farm ingredients, and there are greens, and eggs and tomatoes for sale if you would like to stop by.

We all agreed we were damn cold and David told us about their plans for the summer before he hit the road for home.  It will be a busy one.  I hope to get back out to Kinnikinnick Farm and see how it all progresses.  You may want to go for a Sunday drive to Kinnikinnick your own self.  There’s pesto and eggs and purple tents and smart people.  By June there will be lightning bugs.  What else do you really need?

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3 Comments on “Kinnikinnick Farm”

  1. Jennifer Richardson Says:

    LOVE this piece
    AND that you’re giving voice to
    these artists and their art.
    Takes one to know one, kiddo:)
    I’m going back to slowly wander through
    this later…..must be savored!
    Beautiful in every way, Mary.
    (so paintable indeed:))



  2. Laura Machin Says:

    I want to go!!! I enjoyed my visit second hand through your words, Mary. Wonderful job! When you go back, I want to go. Thanks for sharing!



  3. Belle Says:

    Write on, Girl1



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