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Yorkville couple builds organic farm business from ground up

Kris and Lara Gawrych of Yorkville started Sol Gardens organic farm on a single-acre patch of land owned by a family friend.

Three years later, they moved onto their current property on Highpoint Road in Yorkville, with four acres of vegetables, around 10 acres of organic hay, and six acres of cow pastures. In addition to fruit and vegetables, the farm is raising broiling chickens, egg-laying hens, black Angus cattle and American Guinea hogs.

All of the products are certified organic, except for the hogs, but they intend to get them certified next year. Sol Gardens isn’t the only organic farm in the county, but it’s the only certified organic farm that raises livestock along with fruit and vegetables.

They sell their goods at the Oswego Country Market on Sundays and the Batavia Farmers’ Market on Saturdays.

“It’s just been a crazy evolution, from year to year,” Kris said. “It started as a one-acre field. Once we got this property, it was just full-throttle. We just kept going.”

The couple – Kris, 37, is a Connecticut native and Lara, 39, is a Yorkville High School alum – met at Evergreen State College, a progressive university in Olympia, Washington, as they both were studying sustainable agriculture.

“What was cool about Evergreen was you were in the classroom a couple days a week and in the field a couple days a week,” Lara recalled.

They initially wanted to move back to the west coast, but Patrick Harbour, a family friend, gave them the start so they could grow some organic produce and sell it at local farmers markets. Harbour’s land was in a conservation easement, Lara said, which made it easier to get their produce certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Harbour also lent the couple a tractor and other equipment.

“We didn’t have a tractor, we didn’t have equipment, we didn’t have anything,” Kris said.

After building their farm on the Harbour property, in the spring of 2013, the couple found their current site at 7531 E. Highpoint Road, a property that both of them knew would be perfect as soon as they saw it.

Lara credits her husband with being resourceful when it comes to repurposing old equipment, for example. During a recent day at the farm, Kris was using an old washing machine as a kind of giant salad spinner in which to dry lettuce and greens.

An old freezer is being used as a germination unit to help germinate plants in the winter, another one of Kris’s ideas, Lara said.

Kris said the freezer germination unit can keep the humidity at 100 percent via a water heater element, and he can control the temperature to exactly what the seeds need to grow.

“They germinate way faster because we’re giving them exactly what they want,” he said.

This fall, he’s planning on installing a catchwater device, a giant rain barrel of sorts, to grab the water running off his barn’s roof and use it instead of well water for irrigation.

The couple also finds funding resources that help them grow their crops.

They recently received a grant from the Frontera Farmer Foundation, run by Chicago chef Rick Bayless, that paid for a greenhouse that allows them to grow plants all year long.

“Before I was having to order in certified organic plant starts, like the tomatoes, peppers, that stuff,” Kris said. “Now with this, I do it on my own, which is obviously cheaper but it’s also allowed us to do more throughout the season.”

Part of staying certified organic is constantly moving and rotating crops and livestock, Kris said.

“Everything’s in rotation,” he said. “Cows are moved every three days, pigs are moved daily, our broiler chickens are moved daily, even our laying hens are moved every two weeks. The crops are rotated throughout the season. Everything is in constant rotation.”

Both of them were raised either farming or gardening, Lara said.

Lara recalled being raised on a diet that was ahead of its time, before the trends of “clean eating” or organic living.

“We had no sugar in the house, there was no caffeine in the house, we had an acre garden in our backyard,” she said. “I remember growing peanuts and making homemade peanut butter as a kid. I was always into it. I had seeds started in my bedroom and stuff. We had that background.”

Kris’s grandmother’s family on the East Coast is heavily involved in farming, Lara said.

“Through his grandma he got a lot of exposure to farming,” she said.

On the Sol Gardens farm, everything is organic – from the hay to the grain that is fed to the chickens. Lara said what chickens eat affects the taste of the eggs.

“If we were to crack an egg, the yolks are so orange; they’re almost red,” she said. “They’re eating forage, they’re eating bugs so they’re getting protein. All the grain that we feed these guys is certified organic, too.”

The grain comes from Mennonites, and the broiler chickens are slaughtered by Amish butchers, Lara said.

They use some products endorsed by the Organic Materials Review Institute for certified organic crops to help contain pests like potato beetles or Asian beetles, but they only use the products maybe two or three times in a year, and some years they never use them, Lara said.

“This is the deal: you have good years and bad years, and you always plant more than you need, you always have a buffer, because so much of it is going to get munched by bugs or take a hit,” she said.

Lara said they need to have a habitat for invasive insects so they’ll stay away from crops.

“My front flower bed is full of some kind of weed – I don’t know what it is, but I left it because the Asian beetles love it,” she said. “They’re not out here – they’re in the front yard.”

Lara said they are “soil farmers” more than crop farmers, because good soil allows the plants to grow healthy and strong without needing pesticides or other chemicals. The soil is covered in “cover crops” in the winter, and that plant material is then incorporated into the soil in the spring, which makes the soil rich in nutrients and helps with water retention, she said.

“The whole point of organic farming is to feed the soil – don’t feed the plants,” she said. “If you have healthy soil, you have healthy plants. Healthy plants can fight off infestations; it’s really preventative.”

The couple takes its organic certifications seriously, and Kris said there are some things that rub him the wrong way about some people who sell items at farmers markets but claim to be organic.

“The big thing that I’ve been having a problem with, a lot of these guys will say ‘We’re organic,’ but they’re not using organic seed,” he said. “It’s the DNA for the entire plant.”

Kris said the USDA has loosened the restrictions on what can be called organic. For example, he can search three companies for organic seed, and if he can’t find the organic seed for the plant he’s looking for, he can purchase conventional seed.

“We don’t do that,” Kris said. “To me, it’s the DNA for the whole plant. If I go out and get a conventional seed and grow it organically, it’s already been tainted.”

“There are certain things I can’t get, but I choose not to grow it because I can’t get organic seed,” he said.

Kris said the reason the USDA has the looser rules for organic seeds was, at the time it was difficult to find organic seeds. They are now easier to find, he said.

“Now that rule needs to change; it should be 100 percent organic seed,” he said.

Lara said Kris hangs out with a group of older farmers in their 60s and 70s, who enjoy the camaraderie and also enjoy passing on tips and knowledge to a younger generation. Compared to the average farmer in Kendall County, Kris is a kid – the USDA Agricensus data from 2012 says the average age of a farmer in the county is 57.5 years old.

“They all get giddy because there’s nobody young doing this stuff,” she said. “So all the older farmers come over and hang out and help Kris do all sorts of stuff.”

And they will take all the farming knowledge they can get. In recounting the story of how they landed their property for a bargain price, Lara said the couple is in the farming business for the long haul.

“We’ll never win the lottery, but all of our good luck was here,” she said. “This is our spot.”

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