Our Owner and Uptown Farmers Market photographer Rick Baer and his wife Candace visited one of our market farms recently. Here's his report back from Andrew's Heirlooms, along with some beautiful photos in the slider above.
A Bit of History
Andrew Cohn loves farming even though he didn't grow up on a farm. He was born in Chicago and lived in the 'burbs. His wife Melissa was born and raised just a few blocks west of the Uptown Farmers Market site on Sunnyside Mall. Together they planted their first vegetable garden in a 20' x 30' plot by their apartment. Their entire first harvest fit on one platter.
Later, when asked to help at a friend's family farm, Andrew learned quickly and showed he was a natural at planting, weeding, and harvesting. From the enjoyment of working the fields that season, Andrew knew he had found his life passion.
Today, Andrew's Heirlooms LLC leases that same land from the friend's family. It's located in a small agricultural pocket on Aptakisic Road in Lake County, IL where Buffalo Grove, Lincolnshire, and Prairie View come together, just 30 miles from the Uptown Farmers Market. In July we had the chance to visit the farm and learn about their operations.
What They Grow For The Uptown Farmers Market
While best known for his heirloom and other tomatoes, Andrew grows a wide variety of Midwest veggies from A to Z: asparagus, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, chard, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, green beans, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, onions, peas, peppers, pickles, pie pumpkins, potatoes, radishes, squash and zucchinis. And this year, Melissa has expanded their product line by creating bouquets made with flowers grown on their land. Not sure what to buy this week? Taste the tomatoes!
The whole family, Andrew, Melissa, Natalie (13), and Thomas (9) works the farm including starting seedlings in the hoop house, transplanting to fields, staking, and stringing. They follow organic practices for soil fertility, seed sourcing, crop rotation, and the management of pests, diseases, and weeds. Which means lots of time spent pulling those gosh darn weeds.
They're fortunate to have lady bugs to battle aphids. The soil is improved by adding compost, green manures, and animal manures including fowl (foul?) poop from their chickens and turkeys.
Andrew is a strong believer in spreading a single crop around different rows so if there's a plant-specific disease or rain flow problem in one area, it won't wipe out one product's entire harvest. They always want their customers to get some of their tasty tomatoes and other produce.
A Few Harvesting 101 Tips From Andrew
During our visit, Andrew gave us city folk an introduction to some harvesting basics.
Since root vegetables (carrots, beets, onions, radishes) grow mostly underground, how do you know when it's prime time to harvest? Dig and decide! Pull one plant out of the ground and see if it's big enough for the market. These carrots are not ready for market.
Early in the season cut off the scapes, the long green shoots that grow above ground from the bulb, which promotes larger bulb growth. Fresh scapes are sold in the market offering a similar but milder garlic taste.
Later in the season when harvesting the bulbs out of the ground, keep their stems attached while they still have green in them. This extends the shelf life of the garlic, even after we buy it.
A single green bean plant may have ten or more beans growing from it — but don't grab a bunch of beans and yank them off, because the bean will likely break. Remove each one individually from the stem. Even though it can take half a day to fill one harvest crate with beans, it's worthwhile for the resulting product flavor and quality.
Some tomatoes are actually green when ripe (e.g., Green Giants, Cherokee Green or Green Zebra), not to be confused with un-ripened red tomatoes commonly served as fried green tomatoes. But how do you know when a green tomato is ripe enough to be picked? Use your fingers to feel texture and firmness. Hmm, this may be more of a postgraduate tip than a 101.
Andrew's Core Values Are In Line With Chicago Market
The gate to their farm was wide open for us. They shared their operations, successes, and challenges—like the weeds pictured—and answered all our questions. With Andrew’s produce, you don't have to wonder where your broccoli was grown or when those green beans were picked.
Everything is local and fresh. If you are hesitant to try a new product, ask about it. If it tastes good raw (not you kale), they will most likely offer you a sample to help you decide.
Andrew, Melissa, and Natalie help nurture a sense of community at the Uptown Farmers Market.
Beyond the fresh produce and artisanal products they provide, they help bind neighbors together. With each interaction, whether it's a casual chat about the best way to prepare a certain vegetable (see Preparing Broccoli Stems) or learning about the neighborhood's upcoming events, they foster connections that go beyond mere transactions.
They are familiar faces, remembered not just for their goods but for the warmth and familiarity they bring to the market atmosphere.
They collaborate with other vendors to help ensure everyone's success and contribute to local organizations such as the Sunnyside Mall committee, demonstrating their commitment to the betterment of our community. As they share their knowledge about sustainable farming practices or the origins of their products, they also educate and inspire us to make conscious choices. Over time, these interactions culminate in a web of relationships, evolving the Uptown Farmers Market into a place where people come not only for sustenance but for a sense of belonging.
The kids are an integral part of the farm, from planting to selling, and all steps in between. Thomas is always willing to do a taste test on a cucumber or radish to let dad know if the crop is ready for harvest. When not in school, Natalie is in the fields planting and weeding, or at the market, interacting with customers.
Their family values and community values merge at the Uptown Farmers Market, where they treat shoppers, other vendors and volunteers as members of their extended family.
Everyone is greeted with a smile and a quick rundown of what's good this week. Andrew and Melissa especially love it when customers bring them samples of dishes they have made using their produce. What can we do with kohlrabi? Melissa shared some tips with us that she had received from other customers: shred them for coleslaw or grill them with olive oil and salt.
Andrew’s strong commitment to reusability is best exemplified by the tractor he uses, a 77 year old McCormick Farmall Model “A” built at an International Harvester plant in Chicago and now lovingly maintained by him. If you’ve ever seen one of these, it’s probably been at an antique show, not operating in a field. But some farm tasks require a bit more power, so he also has a “new” IH tractor built in the 1950s.
The family delights in picking tonight's dinner produce, riding around the farm on an ATV (including Andrew’s 90 year old grandmother) and watching the wildlife that shares their farm (as long as the hawks and coyotes don't dine on their chickens).
As we concluded our farm visit, Melissa summed up why we find it so fulfilling buying local at a farmers market:
“Andrew and I are extremely proud of what we do, and we try our hardest to ensure that anyone who enjoys our produce knows that it comes from our hearts. While doing markets is a great way to make money, it has become so much more than that for us. The sense of family and friends that we have gotten from each market is amazing, and selling at the Uptown Farmers Market is coming home for me. When you get to do something as gratifying (and hard) as what we do, it's even better to bring it all back to where you started.”
We are grateful to Andrew and Melissa for following their passion for produce and providing healthy, nutritious, fresh, local products for the Uptown Farmers Market community.
Don't miss Rick's other post about their visit to Los Rodriguez Farm.