How One Cook County Farm is Highlighting Sustainability (VIDEO)
One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Just ask Carl and Deb Smits, owners of Smits Farms in Chicago Heights. When they started their flower and vegetable operation in 1990, the state had just made it illegal for garbage dumps to accept yard waste.
For the Smits, who were dedicated to sustainable farming practices, that ban created an opportunity. They began accepting grass clippings, leaves and other yard waste on their 30-acre farm in southeast Cook County the month the ban went into effect. It became the fertilizer for their first crops and continues to be their preferred method of growing more than 25 years later.
This decision has been integral to the success of their operation, which has grown from one greenhouse on that first 30 acres to 18 greenhouses across what is now a 158-acre operation in Cook and Will counties. What was first a bedding plant and vegetable farm has also now added herbs to its product list.
“In 1999, a new farmers’ market opened in Lincoln Park that we were anxious to be a part of,” Carl Smits says. “The Green City Market required that vendors have a locally sourced product that was grown in an environmentally responsible way, and that really fit what we were doing and the customers we were trying to serve.”
It also required some additional work for Smits Farms. “To participate, you had to be either certified organic, sustainable or Food Alliance Certified,” Smits says, noting that each certification has its own requirements. “Since our fertilizer source is yard waste, we couldn’t be certified organic.”
Why? Because the yard waste comes from so many sources that there is no way to determine whether the grass clippings accepted at the farm were treated with chemicals before they arrived.
Blueprint for Success
The Smits family decided to complete certification through Food Alliance, a nonprofit that emphasizes conservation practices, reduced use of pesticides, food product integrity, enhanced working conditions for employees and protection of wildlife habitat.
“Food Alliance has a strong sustainability focus,” Smits says. “Their certification process provides a kind of blueprint that you can follow, while also offering the opportunity to customize it to your farm operation. They encourage you to consider how best to grow your product while protecting and enhancing the environment.”
While the immediate benefit of Food Alliance certification meant that Smits Farms could be part of the Green City Market, they count other benefits as well. “In addition to the focus on sustainable practices, what we learned through certification steered us to make improvements for employees who work here, customers who visit our farmstands and even the wildlife on the farm. We built bluebird and owl houses, for instance, not only to protect the birds but to help them thrive.”
Rooted in Stewardship
The Food Alliance affiliation isn’t the only one that has been helpful to Smits Farms as it builds business and serves the farmers’ markets and residents of Cook and Will counties.
“The Cook County Farm Bureau has been a wonderful resource for us,” Smits says. “They understand the specific issues that farmers in a Midwest urban environment face. They help us with permitting processes, production issues and tax issues. Basically, they provide guidance on what a small farm in Cook County can do to maximize their operation while keeping to their specific goals,” which for Smits includes building a business that has a sustainability focus and that can be a part of the family for the next generation.
That generation includes daughter, Kayla Biegel, who earned her degree in marketing and is now in charge of the farmers’ markets, as well as daughters, Monica and Rachel, and sons, Andrew, Matthew and Titus, all of whom grew up on the farm.
“Sustainability in farming is about good stewardship,” Smits says. “It’s something we’ve been dedicated to and that we work to pass along to our children. Our employees and customers appreciate that commitment. We’re grateful for their loyalty, and we’re always looking for new ways to build on that commitment.”
Where to Buy
Smits Farm has a greenhouse and farmstand located at 3437 East Sauk Trail in Chicago Heights and a second farmstand at the corner of 394 and Steger Road in Steger. Both are open seasonally. You can also find them at eight Chicago and Chicagoland farmers’ markets. Check their website or call (708) 758-1244 or (708) 758-3838 for hours and availability.