Growing in a commodity region

Photos By Lee Riggs.
George Wilburn examines surti papadi on the vine.

Illinois is mostly corn and soybean country. Chicagoland’s westward expansion is gobbling up extensive farmland, making even less land available for vegetable production. Downstate, the twin cities of Bloomington-Normal are home to giant insurance companies, Illinois State University and numerous other businesses. The cities continue to boast booming economies despite regional and national downturns, and similar disappearance of farmland is occurring, often eliminating small farm market operations.

Over the years, niche crop production for local sales has been encouraged particularly among small fruit and vegetable growers, as they have found competing in today’s global market more and more difficult.

Late-afternoon customers Deepti Kana, Suneetha Devalala and Aparna Cirigiri pick vegetables.

Wilburn’s U-Pick Garden Market in Towanda, Ill., is wedged between Interstate 55 and business development along a local route, about two hours south of Chicago. George Wilburn grows vegetables on about 1 acre of land that includes his home, and about 4 acres of leased land across the road. Wilburn and his wife Helen have grown and sold vegetables for about 30 years.

Not much has changed in the way Wilburn plants his vegetables, but starting about 15 years ago the vegetable mix changed in response to demographics in nearby Bloomington-Normal. A significant portion of the economy is in high-tech fields, and a diverse population has helped increase the area population while other Midwestern communities have lost population to the Sun Belt. Ethnic Indian and Asian populations have grown dramatically, and Wilburn has learned, by trial and error, how to grow some of the Indian and Oriental vegetables desired by that growing market.

Transition to ethnic vegetables

“About 15 years ago, I tried some Indian vegetable seeds that one of my customers gave me,” Wilburn said, which initiated his entry into ethnic vegetable growing. He attributes the popularity of his U-Pick market to lack of competition, freshness and competitive pricing. He said, “People can buy these vegetables in the ethnic stores, but they don’t know how long they’ve been there. When they come out here and pick for themselves, they know they’re fresh, and people are price-conscious.”

Some vegetables are known by both Indian and Oriental names, as well as English names. “The first thing we had to do was learn the names for the vegetables,” Wilburn said. Some of the more unusual vegetables include ash gourds, loofa gourds, snake gourds, taro, elephant ears, lotus plants, bitter melons, papadi, balsom pears, kohlrabi, winter melons and xopo squash. Some of the vegetables are known by more than one name, such as loofa gourds, which are also known as sponge gourds, and ash gourds, also known as winter melons.

Curry leaves are requested by a high number of his customers. Traditional Midwestern vegetables popular among Wilburn’s customers include potatoes, beets, eggplant, broccoli, okra and peppers. Several varieties of peppers are popular and include bell peppers and chile peppers. The widely popular jalapeno pepper is among those frequently requested, as well as the lesser-known jawala pepper.

Planting and growing

“We grow the Indian and Oriental vegetables pretty much the same way we grow other vegetables,” Wilburn said. Most vegetable-growing work is labor-intensive, and Wilburn’s garden is no exception. A number of the vegetables are trellised, limiting the use of even a small tractor. Most of the planting is done with an EarthWay push-type walking planter.

George Wilburn points out delicate snake gourd vines.
Surti papadi pods in drying process for seeds to be saved.
Surti papadi is popular at Wilburn U-Pick Garden Center.

Wilburn obtains seeds from Evergreen Y.H. Seeds in Anaheim, Calif. He occasionally purchases plant slips, but most plants are grown from seeds. “We have to save the seeds for some of our vegetables. The only other way to get them would be from India,” he said. He cited surti papadi as one of those vegetables.

The surti papadi pods are harvested for seed when the pods begin to dry on the vine. After the pods dry and begin to turn brown, the seeds are removed and dried for three to four weeks before being stored in jars for planting the following spring.

Located in the middle of the Corn Belt, Wilburn’s land is deep black loam. Illinois black loam is sometimes 4 feet deep and provides a good base for growing vegetables with little or no added nutrients required. Wilburn uses no irrigation. While ample rainfall is common across central Illinois, rainfall variations are the norm and can affect not only the vegetable growth, but also the weed growth.

Weeding is a major concern in growing the vegetables. Wilburn uses a tractor-drawn cultivator to weed potatoes and beets, but it can’t be used for the trellised vegetables. “I have a hard time keeping up with weeding,” Wilburn said. “This year was really difficult. I was laid up for six weeks after surgery, and most of what was done in the garden this year, my wife did.”

Harvesting vegetables

While the market is primarily a U-Pick operation, Wilburn harvests several items for sale in the market. “We have to pick the gourds,” he said. “People don’t understand that they can damage a vine if they aren’t careful when they pick them. If they kill the vine, we lose the income from that vine, so we strictly enforce our ‘restricted areas’ where customers are not allowed to pick.”

Potatoes are loosened from the soil using what Wilburn described as an antique potato plow. It was manufactured to be horse-drawn, and he adapted it to a three-point hitch to attach to his small Ford tractor. After the potatoes are loosened and brought to the top of the soil by the plow, they are picked up and taken inside the market for sale.

Customers start arriving at the U-Pick garden around 10 a.m., and continue until sunset. Late afternoon and weekends, when families and friends can come to the garden, are the busiest times.

Wilburn depends solely on word-of-mouth advertising for his U-Pick operation, and that has worked well. “We have customers who come from Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis,” he said.

Ethnic crops part of marketing strategy

Vegetables are brought into the U.S. from around the world. Production costs are often low in the countries of origin, which can sometimes keep prices low.

Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant, sustainable agriculture specialist with University of Illinois Extension, works with small farmers particularly on marketing strategies. She said, “For growers who live in communities with high ethnic populations, looking at ethnic crops is very important as part of a marketing strategy. People who come from other countries crave the foods from their home countries.”

Various programs are in place to link farmers to ethnic markets to increase profitability through the growing of specialty produce. The programs often provide guidance on switching to specialty crops from less profitable traditional crops, or adding the specialty crops to an existing crop mix. Rutgers University conducted an extensive USDA-funded study to determine various ethnic food preferences. The study documented market opportunities to help create a plan to help farmers grow and cooperatively market specialty products along the East Coast.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Turf. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.