Backyard Industry (Tim Meyers on camera and me asking questions) decided the best way to spend a sunny early fall day would be to spend it here.
Actually, we planned this visit to The Great Pumpkin Patch in Arthur, IL weeks ago. In September in Illinois, however, one just never knows with the weather; you take your chances when you schedule an outdoor shoot. Today was clear, warm, and dry. Perfect, really. We were pinching ourselves.
Here’s what getting there is like:
Leave Urbana-Champaign on highway 57 (or, if you’re us, you take Rt. 45 through Tolono and Pesotum until you hit 57). Drive past Tuscola and start seeing signs for various attractions in Arcola, like Rockome Gardens. Exit the highway at Arcola, and start the drive through town, which is when the horse-drawn buggies become evident – suddenly, it’s pretty serious Amish country. Drive through Chesterville. Note the laundry on the line and enormous gardens. More buggies. The air is redolent with the scent of horse poo. Once arriving in Arthur, there are not only buggies co-existing with cars – the Amish are also avid cyclists. (And when I say avid, I mean Amish gents of all ages are on recumbent bikes that fit right in with those in “bike friendly” towns like Urbana or Champaign. Women were on bikes, too, though we didn’t see any riding recumbent bikes. Anyway.) Hang a left in the middle of town, just before the county line, drive (or buggy, or bike) a couple miles, take a right, and there’s TGPP, on the left. It can’t be missed this time of year – there are lots of signs coaxing visitors in last quarter mile, and a huge field of potted chrysanthemums is visible from the intersection. But there’s also this: Fields of drying corn and soybeans are everywhere, but the lack of corn and beans sets TGPP apart. They grow pumpkins, yes, but they also grow squash – hundreds of varieties of squash from all over the world. They sell seeds for these amazing vegetables. There’s also the all-day, every-day bakeathon in a bakery on the premises. It’s like arriving on another planet in about 45 minutes.
The Condill family has been there, on that same land, living and growing food and raising families and going out into the world and coming back, since the 1850s. In 2012, the Summer of Drought, I went down to interview Mac Condill, whom I suppose I’d title as The Main Guy, for Backyard Industry Radio – you can hear it here. (It was an excellent year for pumpkins, as I recall.) I’d known Mac’s brother and sister-in-law, Kit and Emily, for a few years, and Mac and I had corresponded over booth details for Urbana’s Market at the Square when I was working there; I’d also worked with Ginny, Mac’s wife, and Shana, his sister-in-law, to bring TGPP’s educational efforts to Sprouts at the Market. Mac’s parents still live on the farm (and officially own the businesses) and the other Condills are close by. In short, they’re incredibly nice people, generous with their time and their premises (and trusting, jeez – they gave us our own golf cart to get around), and they run a beautiful operation designed to give guests, many of whom have no connection to a farm or rural life whatsoever, a gentle – but subtly powerful – on-farm experience.
And that is precisely what I love about them, and why we wanted to produce a video there. They’re happy to have you if you want to buy decorative gourds and mums, and they’re happy to have you if you want to spend the day there meandering the grounds and relaxing, but either way, you’re going to leave knowing a little more about heirloom squash and biodiversity whether you realize it or not. They want to meet you where you are. They do not look like farmers. They’re not Amish. They’re a highly-educated and well-traveled bunch who are very well-known in seed and farming/gardening circles. They’ve built walls of squash at the White House and have encouraged Martha Stewart to smash a pumpkin (she obliges at 5:15 in this video). They’re deeply respected by their communities – the local community, the farming community, and the local food community – and that respect is mutual, in part because they have elected to stay, when so many others got out of farming as soon as they could, not seeing potential or, in many cases, not being able to diversify.
The words “passion” and “empowerment” regarding what they do came up again and again in interviews and conversation today. “Are you guys for real?” I asked, but I wasn’t serious. It was evident on their faces and in their eyes as they talked that they are, indeed, for real.