From the vine
Tucked away in rural Woodstock is a 40-acre field surrounded on three sides by land preserved by the McHenry County Conservation District. No sounds of car engines can be heard in this peaceful garden, where food is allowed to grow as it did before the emergence of pesticides. Welcome to Salute! Farm & Vineyard, the passion project of Milwaukee resident Haje Black, who was determined to establish a farm that could help northern Illinoisans acquire healthier eating habits.
“It started with my passion for healthy eating and fresh, organic produce,” Black said, “a produce that is not grown in chemicals and is harvested a day or two before you consume it. The majority of the nutrients that we need to survive come from the vegetable family, and those nutrients begin to degrade the moment a plant is harvested. So when you eat a vegetable from a grocery store that’s two weeks old, it doesn’t have near the nutritional value of one that is eaten right after it is harvested.”
The word “salute” is Italian for “to your health,” and is emblematic of Black’s goal to emulate the characteristics of Italian cooking, which is traditionally made from the freshest of ingredients and is always in season. Though the organic food movement may seem relatively new, Black points out that all farms used to operate according to her high standards.
“Before World War II, this is how all food was grown for thousands of years,” Black said. “When the war was over, they had all these chemicals left and they didn’t know what to do with them. So they created these various types of fertilizers and products that would push growth for vegetables and it became standard practice. The pesticides deplete the nutrients in the soil, so no nutrients go into the plants. Once you destroy the soil nutrients, it’s hard to grow without fertilizer.”
Up until the last half-decade, Salute! was known primarily for growing an assortment of vegetables that could be purchased through its website or at the Woodstock Farmers Market. Though Black admits she was a “complete novice” when she started her business, she quickly learned the skills necessary to combat forces of nature without resorting to the use of chemicals.
“You have to weed, but you feel more comfortable with weeds,” Black said. “You don’t care if the field looks perfect. You use other things instead of chemicals that have the same impact. You rotate the crops and use fish emulsion or compost, which are natural fertilizers. Each pest has certain things you can use to combat it. Sometimes I even add dry milk to the soil.”
On Sept. 2, 2007, Salute! held its first grape harvest, and its subsequent bottling in 2008 garnered a silver medal at the Illinois State Fair Wine Competition. The farm’s second bottling was in 2009 and earned bronze medals at both the Illinois State fair and the Indiana International Wine Competition. The farm’s “Primo Rosso Reserve,” which blended red wine with black currant and cherry, was on sale at La Petite Creperie and Green Box Boutique, both of Woodstock.
“For every acre of vines, a vineyard produces about 4,000 pounds of grapes,” said farm manager Nick Carroza. “Four-thousand pounds of grapes produces about 600 gallons of wine, and 600 gallons of wine is about 3,000 bottles. So if you have 5 acres, that’s 15,000 bottles. Now our garden is a relatively new vineyard, so it’s not going to produce that volume yet. The southern part of Illinois has a lot more vineyards, but it’s a different climate down there. Here they have to be very winter-hardy grapes.”
The grape and produce harvests stalled in 2010 due to an outbreak of Japanese beetles and extreme weather. After selling out of her wine, Black was forced to drop her liquor license, which she hopes to renew next year in light of the upcoming harvest. Though other farmers may argue that pesticides would’ve kept the beetles away, Black disagrees.
“One of the big challenges that we face is that we’re the only grape vineyard we know of that’s trying to grow grapes organically,” Black said. “I really believe that while we had problems with the Japanese beetles, all the vineyards had problems that year, and I don’t think the pesticides are the issue at all. It was just a tough year for grapes.”
This year, the farm is selling its produce through a wholesaler to local grocery stores, so consumers can’t purchase food directly from the farm. Both Black and Carroza stress that this is a transitional time for the farm, which is aiming to change its business model from retail to wholesale.
“One of our big inspirations for this change has been Dick Foltz from the Fox Valley Winery down in Oswego,” Carroza said. “He was president of the IGGVA, which is the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association, and he has provided us with a great deal of guidance.”
“My goal was to provide local vegetables to local people where they could get a huge variety every week and eat things that they could never find in a grocery store,” Black said, “but it was not financially sustainable for me. So now we’re growing vegetables for local grocery stores and we’re not growing the huge variety that we were growing before. We had to look at it from a financial standpoint, and we ended up growing vegetables that are higher in profit and lower in labor. It’s unfortunate and it breaks my heart, but it’s one of the realities of running a business.”
The next grape harvest is scheduled for this month, and though Black has temporarily pulled her stand from the Woodstock Farmers Market, she urges customers to pay regular visits to the market.
“The farmers market in Woodstock is excellent,” Black said. “I would strongly encourage anyone to go and shop there and support the local farmers. I don’t think people really understand how fortunate they are to have that market there. People all over the county are asking these farmers to come to their own town as opposed to going to Woodstock. It’s a big decision for farmers to choose Woodstock over towns like Barrington or Evanston, so it’s very critical for the people of Woodstock to support that market.”