Family operation at the edge of development

Windy Acres is a 38-acre, family-owned and operated fruit and vegetable farm in Geneva, Ill. Until recently, Geneva marked the westernmost point of Chicago’s Metra train. About a year ago, continuing suburban expansion, with cornfields quickly giving way to residential and business development, moved that stop a bit farther west to Elburn.

Windy Acres Farm is located adjacent to major suburban development. Top: Amanda Srail checks cabbage for readiness to harvest.

A major shopping development, Geneva Commons, with its major chains and upscale stores, is just up the road a short distance, and a housing development is now adjacent to the farm, contrasting sharply with the tree-shaded farm market and growing crops. Operating on the edge of such a major metropolitan area brings both benefits and challenges, which the Srail family meets with dedication to their goal of continuing to provide the best possible quality flowers and produce to an ever-increasing number of customers. A fall festival also draws large crowds for the apples, doughnuts, cider and entertainment for children as Windy Acres increasingly participates in popular fall agritourism activities.

Windy Acres operates an on-site farmstand market, and the family residence is located on the farm. The farmstand sells primarily produce grown on the farm, with some early produce brought in from other locations along with additional popular items, such as regionally produced honey.

Windy Acres’ farmstand sells produce and other popular items.

Family focus

Wayne Srail and his wife Daryl have owned Windy Acres since 1985. Their four children all work on the farm as well.

“I’m the oldest of four siblings,” says Amanda. Along with Kristen, Jaime and Scott, they contribute their labor throughout the year in activities that range from planting to developing ideas for fall festival promotions.

Fall decorative items continues to generate extensive business at Windy Acres, with mums among the most popular items.

Spring sales start with perennials and annuals. “My mom is really the flower person,” Amanda says. In addition to selling bedding plants, Daryl arranges a high number of seasonal planters for both residences and businesses. “People want to change their planters with the seasons,” Amanda says, so Daryl custom-designs arrangements for a number of events throughout the year in addition to the seasonal arrangements.

Growing produce

Most plants are grown from seeds in a greenhouse, with seeds planted while the renowned, bitter Chicagoland weather coming off Lake Michigan often is still raging. Whether it’s the first crops of asparagus or cabbage, or later crops of tomatoes, onions, peppers, green beans and sweet corn, along with a host of other vegetables, seeding, transplanting, weeding and harvesting crops at Windy Acres are all labor-intensive. While beds are shaped with a bed shaper and mechanical planters are used for some crops, transplanting is done by hand. Hand-spraying is done with careful targeting of only the intended crop.

Broccoli is harvested at Windy

Windy Acres uses primarily John Deere equipment. With rising fertilizer and other production costs, savings are important. “We purchase a lot of our equipment used,” Amanda says. “That provides a significant savings for us.”

“The most challenging part of growing vegetables is the weather,” Amanda explains. Spring 2009 was exceptionally wet and cool. With unpredictable Chicagoland weather, planting times often have to be adjusted, with plants kept in the greenhouse until weather permits transplanting. Most vegetables are grown on black plastic mulch, and crops are planted to provide produce throughout the growing season.

Windy Acres adds technology to its operations when it’s practical to do so, keeping a focus on growing green and recycling whenever possible. “We just got the John Deere Gator this year,” Amanda points out. “That really helps the guys in harvesting. Before, they hand-pulled wagons out to the field with the baskets placed in the wagons and pulled back to the farmstand.”

Both year-round and seasonal farm employees are drawn from the local Hispanic population, and most employees have been with Windy Acres for a number of years. When additional employees are needed, they are usually hired through referrals of friends and family of existing employees.

Amanda moves easily between Spanish and English as she communicates with workers in the fields. “I became interested in Spanish because I always worked with our employees,” she says. Teaching at an area high school allows her time to devote to the family farm, participating in all activities from greenhouse establishment to taking produce to area farmers’ markets.

A recently acquired John Deere utility vehicle is helpful in harvesting produce.

Green emphasis

Windy Acres places a special emphasis on growing green, and the importance of reducing the carbon footprint created by the operation is emphasized. Recycling is a major focus. Styrofoam, which is often cited as a problem due to its lack of decaying properties, is used in planters instead of rocks to help aerate the plants’ roots. In addition, the reuse of the product reduces at least to a small degree, the amount of Styrofoam that is placed in landfills, and the weight of the planter is kept to a minimum.

Providing information to their customers on both flowers and produce is a significant goal at Windy Acres. The Srails consider the farm part of the Geneva community and value the long-term relationships established with local customers.

Hand-spraying targets only the intended crop.

Marketing produce and activities

Marketing includes advertising in local media, and with the farm’s existence for nearly a quarter of a century, word-of-mouth marketing is a major force. Although a large customer base exists in the Geneva area, Windy Acres has traditionally sold produce at numerous farmers’ markets throughout the Chicagoland area. Farmers’ markets have been exceedingly popular in the suburban Chicago area as families look for fresh, locally grown produce. With the continued development of the region, the area for the customer base is expanding to outlying areas.

“We do go farther with the tight economy with some of the farmers’ markets, just not doing well,” Amanda says. Currently, Windy Acres sells at 16 farmers’ markets with various family members taking produce to different markets. Farmers’ markets operate on varying schedules, with most open from mid-May through early October. While credit cards have long been accepted at most farmers’ markets, this year some markets are participating in the USDA food stamp program.

Most vegetables are grown on black mulch.

Agritourism has gained increased interest, particularly in areas adjacent to large metropolitan areas such as Chicago. With the arrival of fall, Windy Acres moves into its busy fall schedule with fall festival activities that supplement the produce operation, including a period of overlap with produce sales and fall festival activities at the farmstand. School groups arrive for fall activities starting in mid-September to enjoy picking apples, along with apple cider and doughnuts. More than 40 varieties of apples are carried at the market, in addition to the pick-your-own apples on the farm.

Halloween activities have become increasingly popular throughout the country, and Halloween at Windy Acres includes a number of activities. Children enjoy a corn stalk maze, spooky house and farm animal petting zoo.

Gourds have gained popularity for decorating in recent years.

“My brother made a 15-foot train that the children enjoy immensely,” Amanda says. A snack shop sells cider and doughnuts, and a gift shop line includes Halloween masks and various fall décor items to supplement the gourds and pumpkin sales. Area families who purchase produce throughout the growing season frequently visit the farm during the fall festival activities.

“We have school tours, and some of the inner city schoolchildren haven’t been on a farm,” she explains. Children are treated to a tractor and wagon ride to the pumpkin patch to choose the perfect jack-o’-lantern.

School tours, Scout tours and various other groups begin touring the farm about mid-September.

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