A Wisconsin Farm Faced Closure Until Chicago Chefs Saved It

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As Chicagoans endure “very unhealthy” air quality, close down restaurant patios, and mask up with wildfire smoke billowing from Canada, it’s easy to worry about the state of the environment. Climate change has long impacted the Midwest’s farms. For example, southern Wisconsin has been in a “moderate drought” that has some farmers worried about losing portions of this year’s harvests. Precipitation was about 25 percent of normal levels over the last month, according to Beloit Daily News. That lack of rain could have serious consequences not only for farmers but for the restaurants they supply.

While the burden lessened earlier this week as the area saw light rainfall, the dry conditions created a crisis for Jerry Boone at Froggy Meadow Farm in Beloit, Wisconsin: “Honestly, about a month or so ago, I was thinking about shutting the place down,” Boone says.

Froggy Meadow received a boost in June from fundraising efforts organized by famous restaurant customers including Lula Cafe, Obelix, and Smyth: “Once they got the thing going I realized it might be possible to save this place,” Boone says.

The drought has had a serious impact on the farm. Froggy Meadow’s entire melon crop is dead, and peas are about 1/10th of normal production, Boone says. Ginger is barely alive. Onions and shallots are struggling and even if Boone salvages any, they’ll be smaller than in past years. Boone, a fixture on summer Saturdays at Green City Market in Lincoln Park, is also known for his unique offerings, especially rare Japanese eggplants and peppers; there aren’t found grown stateside. The drought killed them, too.

Tomatoes, which don’t need a lot of moisture, are okay, and so are the fall crops. Boone is rooting for a warm September, but adds that fall crops won’t be as lucrative as the summer harvests: “This year is going to be a pretty bad loss,” he says.

Raising prices to make up for the losses won’t work, Boone says. His prices are already higher than most vendors due to how specialized his offerings are. The farm has a residential well onsite, but Boone says it was already overtasked before the drought. The fundraiser will help him sink a new well on the property to protect crops.

Boone prefers to live a simple life; the farm doesn’t have electricity. He doesn’t want to be bothered by too many luxuries even though he supplies ingredients to Michelin-starred restaurants (some with pricey tasting menus). It’s a curious dichotomy, but a quirk that’s part of Boone’s magnetic personality.

Boone saw the warning signs of drought earlier in the year but hoped for the best. He said the winter offered a dry snowfall which did little to hydrate crops. Despite having the attention of acclaimed chefs like Oliver Poilevey of Obelix and John Shields of Michelin-starred Smyth, Boone was reluctant to tell them about the perils the farm faced. It wasn’t until Poilevey and his colleagues came up in June for their annual barbecue at the farm that Boone started to let people know that his farm was in trouble. In Poilevey’s case, Boone couldn’t hide the truth. He saw the condition of the crops firsthand.

“I go up there a couple times a year to hang out and cook with him and some of the crew,” Poilevey says. “Went up about a month ago and he said he didn’t have any water and was considering shutting it all down.”

Chef Devon Quinn of Eden also trusts Boone for growing unique crops that give their restaurants an edge.

Quinn and Paramount Events spearheaded the fundraising campaign, which has been going on since late June. Even before the campaign hit its $40,000 goal (the cost it takes to install a proper agricultural well), Boone was confident he could invest in the new well. He hopes the new water source will help protect his future crops.

“Jerry is the first farmer that I had a true connection with at the market,” Quinn says. “I look forward to my weekly visits with him for the knowledge he holds.” When he saw his friend was in need of help he was happy to lend support. “I serve his mushrooms and tomatoes with pride,” Quinn says.

Boone admits he didn’t want the help, but is grateful to Chicago’s chefs community. He also realizes there are missed opportunities. He’s going to start selling shirts and bags with a Froggy Meadow logo to generate revenue.

“I’m pretty much an individualist,” Boone says. “But I was just amazed by the outpouring of support — they said the kindest things about me … I want everybody to know how grateful I am.”


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