Organic farmer finds profitable niche in locally grown exotic produce


By Gabriel Silverman

Medill News Service

Henry Brockman sells most of his harvest at the Evanston Farmers' Market
Illinois farmer Henry Brockman produces 650 varieties of produce, many of them exotic. Photo by Gabriel Silverman

— Every year, farmer Henry Brockman plants more than 650 varieties of vegetables and fruits on 12 acres of land in Eureka, Ill., or the equivalent of nine professional football fields.

Inspired by his experiences in Japan, Nepal and Israel, Brockman grows exotic varieties, such as burdock, a sweet edible root that is popular in Japanese cuisine but not often found in U.S. supermarkets. He sells his harvest at the Evanston Farmers’ Market and to members of a community supported agriculture network.

In a state that the U.S. Department of Agriculture said produces the second most corn behind Iowa, Brockman’s business model and philosophical approach to farming stand in stark contrast to the single- and dual-crop operations common in Illinois.

“Part of my philosophy is to mimic nature as close as possible, and nature is diverse,” Brockman said while burrowing his hands into the rich, black soil at Henry’s Farm.

More profit per acre

Through labor-intensive farming practices, Brockman has transformed his philosophy into an earnings-to-acre ratio 37.5 times greater than that of corn operations in the state. Brockman estimated that after all costs, he is able to generate $15,000 per acre.

By comparison, corn farmers can expect to net $400 per acre including government subsidies, estimated Mark Faust, a regular columnist for Ag Professional magazine who has interviewed hundreds of farmers. Faust’s estimate is based on a $6.15 per bushel price point. (It’s now $7.32.)  In 2010, the corn average was $4.69, according to Bloomberg LP.

Although the per-acre net earnings is lower for corn farmers than for Brockman, corn operations generally take less effort to farm, Faust said. Corn farming “probably takes one-fifth the number” of hours of labor, Faust said.

Beyond crop diversity, Brockman’s organic approach calls for idling up to 18 of his 30 acres of arable land at a time, allowing it to naturally replenish its nitrogen. Larger operations often use nitrogen-enhanced fertilizers, which can harm the soil and nearby water supplies, Brockman said.

Working the land by hand

Workers at Henry's Farm pride themselves on organic farming techniques and grow 650 varieties of vegetables.
Henry Brockman, second from left, and his three apprentices use organic farming techniques. Photo by Gabriel Silverman

Aside from a tractor to till the land, heavy machinery is absent from Brockman’s growing and harvesting process. Instead, Brockman and his team of one farmhand, three apprentices and an occasional family member work the land by hand. They plant, water and harvest each seedling one by one.

“These big farmers ride around on tractors,” Brockman said. “I spend most of my time on my hands and knees.”  Though Brockman has not applied for organic certification, Brockman said his farm has been operating organically since its founding in 1993.

Brockman estimated that his six-day workweeks typically surpass 80 hours during the season spanning late February to the week before Thanksgiving. From December to February, Brockman said he puts in 40 hours a week planning for the next season, ordering seeds and repairing equipment.

Besides growing and harvesting crops, Brockman acts as his own distributor. He sells directly to consumers through the Evanston Farmers’ Market and a community supported agriculture (CSA) network of 220 members who each pre-pay $375 for a season’s worth of produce that will be delivered weekly. The CSA funds allow Brockman to purchase seeds for planting.

Carol Acree-Cavalier, who is entering her second season as a CSA member, said she was initially wary of some of the more exotic produce. But with a free copy of Henry’s Recipe Booklet and weekly recipes sent via e-mail, Acree-Cavalier is looking forward to the new season.

“I’m excited about getting all this stuff and trying it out,” Acree-Cavalier said. Among Brockman’s produce this year will be komatsuna, also known as Japanese mustard spinach; Jerusalem sunchokes, which are a sunflower species; and 19 varieties of carrots, including white and  purple.

Brockman said 70 percent of his revenue is generated from the Evanston Farmers’ Market. He and his team wake up at 1 a.m. Saturdays to drive three hours north to set up before the 6 a.m. opening.

Risks and challenges

Henry’s Farm is not without risks and challenges. A natural disaster, such as a flood, can wipe out crops, financially damaging operations. Brockman doesn’t grow commodity crops protected by federal subsidies and crop insurance.

In addition, the productivity of Henry’s Farm depends on the health of Brockman and his small team. The type of farming he practices demands a proficiency that is hard to teach, Brockman said. “It’s not just the hours, it’s how efficient you are with those hours,” he added.

Initially, Brockman farmed rent-free on his parents’ land to save enough to start his own operation. He  supplemented his income by translating documents for Japanese companies.

Despite the challenges, Brockman sees a growing market for locally grown produce.
“There’s a huge increase every year,” he said. “It’s been going up as long as I’ve been farming.”