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Almost Country

Lesson Learned, Moving On--Or Not?

A-photo-of-Colleen-Newquist It's been over a year since my last post—is that possible? Well, the calendar doesn't lie. And neither do I. Most of the time, anyway!  

This much is true: After a serious reality check on my ambitions to farm, I severely scaled back my dreams and decided to try growing a modest garden in our mostly wooded yard. We gardened quite a bit when we lived in our previous house. Mostly flowers and herbs, a few tomato plants, strawberries one year, lettuce another. I could do this.   

I acquired a tiller, identified a 12' X 24' patch that seemed to get the most sun, and got to work amending the soil, starting a compost heap, and planting what seemed most likely to succeed with just four hours of direct sunlight--peas, lettuce, arugula, greens, some herbs. The arugula did OK, and I ate the handful of fresh peas that grew right there in the garden. The lettuces never got beyond the baby leaf stage, and the spinach never showed at all. The rosemary, oregano, and thyme never got much bigger than the plants I put in the ground. The sage withered and died. The one bright spot, which indicates that I must indeed have one bright spot in the garden: the usually sun-loving basil inexplicably flourished, growing tall and bushy. Go figure.

All wasn't a total failure. I learned a few things along the way, including the fact I like cooking and eating fresh produce more than I like tending to it, especially in 100-degee heat, especially now that kneeling and squatting are a lot less comfortable than a decade ago. And that no amount of enthusiasm can make up for lack of sunlight. Lesson learned. Moving on--somewhat literally, this time!

Driving home from an anniversary getaway in Saugatuck, Michigan, we stopped in the tiny town of Three Oaks, Michigan for breakfast. We love Three Oaks. We'd been through a few times before and are smitten with the mix of small-town charm and culture worthy of a big city. We spotted an adorable cottage for sale, with a lush garden of grasses and flowers for a front yard and a metal glider on the front porch, and on a whim, made an offer. We closed a month later. We intend to rent it to vacationers in the summer. In the meantime, we're spending nearly every weekend there, painting and decorating, making new friends, and soaking up small-town life. 

Three Oaks Cottage 

It's the perfect house for us, cozy and comfortable, just right for two. And it's got this huge back yard, with a single apple tree, a single daylily plant, and about 13,000 square feet of sunshine, beckoning like a blank canvass. I really am not fond of digging, bending, stooping, sweating in the heat of summer. I don't like it all. I can be really lazy. I don't like weeding. Who has time to water? Besides, we don't even live there. And yet, and yet...a sun-warmed strawberry plucked fresh from the plant tastes like a burst of joy, a homegrown heirloom tomato is incomparably delicious, and herbs--how I love the ruffling the leaves of oregano, basil, thyme, tarragon, sage, lavendar, lemon balm, rosemary just to breathe in their heady aroma.

Well. Some lessons have to be learned repeatedly before they stick.

We'll see where this goes!

Colleen Newquist embraces an almost-country life from her home in Park Forest, IL--and now in Three Oaks, MI! She is the creator of Sunny Side Up, an illustrated essay in each print edition of Capper's magazine. For more of her writing and drawings, visit

Confessions of a Farm School Drop-Out

AphotoofColleenNewquistToday, I'm supposed to be at class number four of the Central Illinois Farm Beginnings program. But I'm not. I'm at my kitchen table, writing this blog, and feeling surprisingly OK about it.

The combination of a wonderful but demanding promotion that caused work to bleed into my weekends and my dire lack of knowledge about farming led me to the conclusion that I need to step back, reassess, and rethink the order in which I'm doing things. So the farm class is on hold. I'm not really a drop-out, I've just deferred continuing until next year, but "drop-out" made a better headline. 

I have this tendency to run headlong into things. Once my mind is made up, it's like the starting gun has been fired and I GO! This has served me well so far. After three months of dating, my husband and I decided to get married, and we did so just three months later. Next fall, we'll celebrate our 25th anniversary. When I decided it was time to move from our last house, we had our property on the market and sold in about two weeks, and bought a new house just a week after that. So when I decided that it was time to learn more about farming, I didn't hesitate to plunge into a class aimed at starting a farm business. I thought I was ready. But I'm not. Or maybe I was just on the wrong track.

I am ready, however, to get my hands dirty, and that is exactly the place I need to start. I need a season of planting something in my backyard patch of clay, of learning to make and use compost, of building a coop and getting a few hens. I have to start somewhere, and I've recognized that the place to do it is on this suburban plot I call Half-Acre Farm. Now I need to dig in. 

After my first day in class, I wrote about the irony of learning to farm in a windowless classroom—the very environment I'm seeking to escape. I still think there's a place for what I was learning there, I just think I need to earn a place in that classroom first. As a wise farmer friend said to me, "Courses are great fun and very helpful, but learning by jumping in is exhilarating." It's funny—I was thinking that by taking a class in the business of farming, I was jumping in—but maybe I was jumping around the fact that no matter how much I learn about farming, there's only one way to become a farmer, and that's to do it. So, deep breath! Time to plunge in.

The goal now? Chickens. I've been talking about it forever. Time to do. Time to GO! Let's see if this time, I'm on the right track.

Farming 101: Reality Check Results in a Challenge

AphotoofColleenNewquistAh, reality. At this weekend’s Central Illinois Farm Beginnings class, it made a strong appearance.

In the previous two weeks, I’d spent time pondering the vision and mission for my business, with the help of worksheets provided by Purdue Extension. It was time well spent.

I clarified my overall goals and values, deducing that I want to connect people to their food in a meaningful way and create a unique, engaging, and educational experience around my farm. My “farm enterprise,” I’ve been calling it, because it has taken on dimensions beyond farming.

What I envision is not just land that I farm, but plots that I rent to people interested in growing their own food but who might not have access their own land, and who would enjoy learning to farm within a community of like-minded people. The enterprise will include raising livestock for meat and dairy. We’ll have a commercial kitchen for baking, canning, and cheese-making, and a climate-controlled room for aging cheese and sausages. We’ll have a retail shop on premises to sell all that we produce. And, since my husband is an artist, we’ll also have an art gallery—and since he has trained as a barista, maybe even a coffee shop! 

But wait, there’s more! We’ll bring in young chefs to give cooking lessons. Once a month, we’ll host fabulous dinners featuring food from our farm or other local farms. It will be a destination, a magical place that makes visitors feel warm, welcome, and part of a terrific community. 

Don’t you wish you were there right now?

Excited about having this big picture in place, and buoyed by the fact that there is a couple successfully combining farming and art at the Wormfarm Institute in Wisconsin, I headed off to class feeling good that I know what I want to do. The topic of the day was doing a SWOT analysis, identifying the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats to our farm business ideas.

Strengths came first. I had a list of about 20 or so, from having strong communication skills and marketing experience to knowing when to ask for help.

Then came weaknesses. A much shorter list, but the items on it revealed serious issues: No farm. No farming experience. No experience with livestock. No money to buy a farm in the near future. Debt.

Then came the assignment: Have a proposal for our farm business ready to share with farmers for evaluation in two weeks. Two weeks!  

The proposal should include our vision, mission, and personal goals; a map of our proposed farm; rough estimates for one or two enterprises (such as selling eggs and/or selling chickens for meat); and a rough plan of how we will market our products.

Ah, reality. Hello. 

On the drive home, I couldn’t decide if I felt like a deer in headlights or a deer who can’t stop herself from leaping onto the road and into the side of semi. Either way the fate of my dream seemed bleak, mirrored in the long, dark-red streaks I kept seeing on the highway.

Lucky for me, my list of strengths also includes determination, not afraid of hard work, and embracing creative problem solving.

I thought over my lists again, and moved one of my listed weaknesses to my strengths: the half-acre lot we live on. It’s mostly wooded, shady, and half of it slopes sharply down to a creek, but work with what you’ve got, I told myself. Figure out how to turn this far-from-ideal-for-farming suburban plot into a mini-business, and scale it up to farm-size when the time is right.


Welcome to Half-Acre Farm. 


I’m now researching what might grow in this space, starting with the 12-by-24-foot garden that gets maybe four to six hours of sunlight. (Skip the fruit-bearing vegetables like tomatoes and squash, I’ve already learned, but greens, herbs, and root vegetables might do OK.) 

I had already planted winter rye in an attempt to improve the soil (clay fill that was packed in—and I mean packed in—after the in-ground swimming pool was destroyed last summer.)  


The rye will grow through the winter, and I’ll cut it down and till it in come spring. I’ve also started composting, creating a bin for us and one for our neighbors, who are happy to contribute.


I need to plan for chickens next. Where this shed is located seems like a perfect spot for a coop that I could keep fairly secure from raccoons, coyotes, and foxes.  


But as I learned today from John Franzese, who provides the most excellent Fran’s Farm Fresh Eggs to our South Suburban Food Co-op, it’s not enough to have a secure coop. I need to consider, too, how to protect chickens from hawks, which are in abundance in these woods. He keeps a couple turkeys as deterrent, although he said owls are not afraid to take those bigger birds down—and we’ve got lots of owls, too!

I’ve also started looking into mushrooms, since this environment seems like a natural (wild varieties are always popping up in the yard.)


Suddenly, what seemed like the easier solution—working with what I’ve got rather than creating a hypothetical, non-existent situation—is seeming not so easy at all. Which is good. (My optimism is out of control.) I believe that if I can work this out and actually create a feasible, profitable business, no matter how miniscule that profit may be, I’ll be better prepared for full-time farming than had I worked with an imaginary, idealistic setting.

Reality, bring it on! I'm ready for the challenge.

I think. 

I hope. 

Can I do it?

I’ll keep you posted. 

Farming 101: Greatest Resource Is Like-Minded Community

A-photo-of-Colleen-NewquistPart of my desire to farm is fueled by my desire to shed the life that keeps me indoors, sitting on my butt in a sealed up building the majority of my days. So I had to smile at the irony of finding myself indoors on a beautiful October Saturday, sitting on my butt in a sealed up building in Bloomington, Illinois, as my first major step toward farming.

But there I was, along with 13 classmates—many of whom, like me, had driven a couple hours to get there—gathered for our first 6-hour class session of Central Illinois Farm Beginnings, a yearlong program on creating a sustainable, entrepreneurial farm business.

The day turned out to be worth every sunless second.

The classroom setting, the books, the in-class assignments, the guest speakers, the homework, all drove home an important point: I have SO much to learn. It feels a little ridiculous, really, to be thinking about if I want to focus on livestock or crops—and then somebody mentioned perennial crops, and I thought, whoa, now that sounds interesting—like I know what I’m talking about. My farming “experience” consists of having visited a few very small-scale farms, sweeping up after my friend as she sheared sheep, reading a couple books about farming, and dating the son of a pig farmer for about three months in high school. I recall being terrified of the geese, who hissed ferociously as they chased me to my car. 

I’ve grown a few tomatoes and lettuce and herbs—which are as about easy to grow as you can get—and I’ve consumed at least a large barnyard full of chickens, cows, and pigs over my lifetime, but that hardly qualifies me to embark on this adventure. Still, I’m determined. So there I sat, pencil in hand, eager to soak up the wisdom (and wonderful humor, it turns out) of the program coordinator, Micah Bornstein, and the farmers and other experts he will bring in with every class. 

The class focuses on farming as a business—because, despite romantic notions to the contrary—that’s what it is. Although it may be the only business people go into (by “people,” I mean me) without the expectation of making a living, or at least not expecting to make a good living. All along as I’ve mulled over the prospect of farming, I’ve consistently had in the back of my head (and often the front) that I’ve got to do something else in addition to farming because, after all, I’ll never be able to support myself that way.

Reading the text for the class,  The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook: A Complete Guide to Managing Finances, Crops, and Staff —and Making a Profit, by Richard Wiswall, got me thinking differently. I realized that it was foolish to undertake ANY business without the expectation of profit. I would never even consider another business proposition that seemed financially doomed, so why would I think of farming differently? Granted, my motivation for farming goes far beyond financial, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t expect success.

So what is my motivation for farming? Much to my surprise, a good deal of our first class dug at that answer. I knew from reading the book’s first chapter that identifying personal values and mission would be part of the program, but in the first session, it became apparent that it’s not just part of it, it’s at the heart of it. Through exercises conducted in pairs and individually, we explored what brought us to the program, what we consider our core values, what we’d do if we had six months to live.

Equally surprising is how everyone went along with this. And this is not a group you’d think of as a touchy-feely bunch. It includes a high-ranking officer in the Illinois corrections system, three attorneys, a former sociology professor, a wine salesman, and a school principal who became a volunteer firefighter after accidentally burning down 10 acres of corn. I love that story.

I learned more than a few things from and about my classmates that day, including:

  • Dry fields catch fire easily (more than one story was shared)
  • It’s possible to live in rural Illinois and practice law in Manhattan
  • When brainstorming ways to use a mason jar, more than one person will see it as a murder weapon

I’m not quite sure what to make of that last one, except that we’ve perhaps all read too many mysteries—and that we are all, in some way, of like minds. We shared a lot of laughs during the day, and by the end of the course, I expect we’ll know each other fairly well. Which is a good thing, because if there’s one lesson from the day that really stuck—and there were so many, I could write a small book—it’s that successful sustainable farming is not a solo endeavor. Even if you’re in business for yourself, you will at some point—perhaps at many, many points—need the knowledge, advice, experience, equipment, empathy, muscle, and kindness of fellow farmers. The greatest resource for farming, it appears, is a farming community. Getting to know each other, sharing and respecting our individual goals and visions, seems a better place than most to start.

So what is my vision? That’s the assignment for next session.

I’ll keep you posted. 

Colleen Newquist dreams of farming from her almost-country home in Park Forest, Illinois. Find more of her writing and illustrations at 

Farming 101: Know Your Market Before Digging In

AphotoofColleenNewquistYou want to be a farmer. Where do you start? Before you buy land, plant crops, purchase livestock, or check out tractors, do one important thing: find your market, says Ellen Phillips of the University of Illinois Extension.  

The farming business is just that—a business—and to be successful, you need to approach it as such. This was the message I took from “Farming Fundamentals: Know Your Food, Be a Farmer,” a daylong workshop on June 10 in Countryside, Illinois.

Sponsored by the Cook County Farm Bureau Commodities/Marketing Team, the Cook Area University of Illinois Extension, and the Illinois Farm Bureau, the day featured several speakers and two panel discussions and covered topics ranging from key elements of a business plan and grant writing to conversation with a beekeeper and using social media.

To market, to market
For me, the “aha!” moment came with the marketing presentation. It prompted me to bring focus to my vague dream of country living and including some sort of farming in my way to make a living. I don’t know yet what I would like to do, but I do know that I need to research the market and have a buyer lined up or at least a marketing plan in place to make it a successful venture.

I learned there are essentially two ways of selling your product: direct marketing (selling directly to consumers) and indirect marketing, such as selling to wholesale markets and food processors.

Among the many ways to direct sell that were discussed—u-pick, roadside stands, farmers markets, CSAs—was the intriguing option of selling to restaurants or chefs. I particularly loved anecdotes of a farmer who started growing lemongrass for a chef who couldn’t find a steady supply of the herb and now grows lemongrass as his primary crop, and the city dweller whose chef friend wanted a particular type of pepper and was having a hard time finding it. The friend approached his neighbors and arranged to trade produce for the opportunity to use their yards as gardens. He now “farms” full-time in 10 backyards, supplying peppers and more to the restaurant chef.

One blueberry farmer, Joe Corrado in Bangor, Michigan, owner of Joe’s Blues, has introduced the opportunity to rent a blueberry bush for the season. Just $35 buys you the opportunity to pick a guaranteed 12 pounds of berries or to have them shipped. Brilliant! Another farmer is going the agritourism route and rents his scenic site with a pond for weddings and other events.

These stories of innovative entrepreneurship opened a world of possibilities in my head.

Online resources
Talking to presenter Phillips at the break, I mentioned that my husband and I are hoping to buy a farm in Wisconsin eventually, and that her comments about determining a market made me think more about location and ease of access to populated areas.

She added another piece of advice: before buying property, know the soil. The one thing you can’t change about land is the soil, she pointed out, and if you want to farm it’s essential to know whether it is suitable for growing crops—and if so, what kind—or for providing pasture for livestock.

A source for knowing an area’s soil is the Web Soil Survey, which provides detailed reports on 95% of the land in the United States, searchable down to home address. I haven’t completely figured out how to use the site yet, but she assured me that if I have a hard time deciphering the information, someone at the Extension office would be happy to help. I have a feeling I’ll be taking them up on that.

Another wonderful resource is the Market Maker website created by the University of Illinois. An interactive site linking farmers and food industry professionals in participating states with each other and with consumers, the site is currently one of the most extensive collections of searchable food industry related data in the country. Recent buy-sell listings in Illinois, for example, included a country club chef seeking locally grown produce and an organic strawberry farm seeking customers.

The site also provides a wealth of information with fact sheets on topics ranging from preparing a business plan and relationship management to state-specific information, such as markets for goat meat in Illinois or honey labeling regulations in Florida.

It’s a complex site with many of layers of information, including demographics. According to an example on the site, a producer wanting to sell meat to Hispanic consumers can request a map showing the greatest concentration of upper-income Hispanic households, then request a complete demographic profile of those locations. My advice for using the site:  start with the "Learn Market Maker" tab.

I want to be a farmer. So where do I start? With a passion for good food, a desire to work outdoors—and, thankfully, an excitement for owning my own business. Thanks to the Farm Bureau and Extension professionals for bringing my dreams down to earth. Knowing where I need to focus first, I can start plowing ahead.

Strong Determination: Building Muscle and Patience in Pursuit of Farming Dream

A-photo-of-Colleen-NewquistI love being strong. I have spent the better part of this weekend knocking a fence down, board by board, patiently removing every nail and stacking the lumber for reuse. I have made friends with a mini sledgehammer, and it is such a satisfying relationship. Whack, whack, whack, down go the boards, one by one.

To remove nails, I use a beat-up old hammer that I vaguely recall belonging to my dad. Even if it didn’t, I feel a connection to him as I work across two sawhorses, tapping nails back out through each board, flipping the board to pull them out, and dropping the spent nails into an old enamel pitcher. I develop a sure and steady flow to my work. My dad was a patient man who methodically worked his way through a project, whether it was refinishing furniture, building a porch with my husband, or doing a crossword puzzle.

I understand the satisfaction that comes with such patience as I take apart the fence. It is a very zen activity for me, unhurried, immensely pleasurable in its rhythm and repetition. It’s also immensely pleasurable because I can do it without struggle—and without being sore. In the past, this type of activity would have deeply fatigued me and left me hobbling and hurting the next day, to the point where I pretty much have left the physical stuff to my husband.

But when I decided that I seriously want to pursue a rural lifestyle and farm, I realized that means getting serious about increasing my physical capabilities. So I started a strength-training program a couple months ago at Quality Classic fitness center, a gym in my town of Park Forest, run by former competitive weight lifters Earl and Alia Davis, who are the nicest people in the world. It’s a very “country” kind of place—everybody knows everybody, and everybody helps you out or leaves you alone as desired. It’s incredibly friendly and supportive. And it’s making me strong.

I’m still fat, still way overweight, but damn, I can swing a four-pound sledgehammer with gusto, and I’ve got stamina I never knew existed. In the past few weeks, I’ve knocked screws out of the wood from two decks—one 10’ X 10’, the other 8’ X 14’—hauled and stacked every plank of lumber, and, in the past two days, single-handedly deconstructed a 35-feet long, 6-feet tall, board-on-board fence. To an almost-50-year-old woman who has been sedentary for the past several years, this feels like an accomplishment.

Colleen Newquist 

I love the confidence that comes with physical labor. This weekend, I have lived exactly as I want to live—with a good part of my day physically immersed in my work. That’s not how I live most days—I spend hours on my butt, in the car, in front of a computer, in endless meetings—but we’re working to change that. All this deconstruction is being done to accommodate the crew and machines that will demolish our concrete pool. I’m sure we’ll mourn its demise on the first 90 degree day, but I’m hoping the sadness will be offset by something I’ve been missing for the past nearly six years: A GARDEN.

The pool has occupied the only spot in this forested yard that gets decent sun. Now, instead of baking myself with those rays, I’ll be raising and cooking up organic produce to feed both body and soul. I’ve so missed getting my hands dirty. This weekend, they got filthy. And I loved it.

Next up will be serious consideration of adding a few hens to the homestead. Homegrown tomatoes in a fresh-egg frittata … I can’t imagine what might be better! Except for fresh goat cheese to go in it. But I’ll have to wait for a real farm for that.

In the meantime, I’ll build a garden and maybe a chicken coop, channeling my dad’s patience with each swing of the hammer as I work surely and steadily toward the dream.

Colleen Newquist 2 

Leftovers Become a Fabulous, and Frugal, Frittata Breakfast

A-photo-of-Colleen-NewquistLast weekend our good friends Joe and Sara came over, and instead of serving dinner, we made a meal out of appetizers.

We ate grilled Italian sausage sliced in chunks and tossed with roasted green peppers, olive oil, garlic, oregano, and a splash of sherry vinegar; bruschetta made with organic grape tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil, and balsamic vinegar; and tuna with olive oil, sherry vinegar, garlic, basil, capers, and two minced anchovies, all served with a crusty French bread.

And since I can’t seem to stop myself when it comes to cooking, we also enjoyed hummus with warm pita triangles and baked mini red and orange peppers stuffed with herbed goat cheese. Generous servings of wine and beer rounded out the menu, which we savored on the screen porch, thanks to an unseasonably warm April evening.

Sunday morning, the leftover sausage, stuffed peppers, and bruschetta made their way into a fantastic frittata. I sautéed a few baby portabella mushrooms that needed to be used and half an onion that was in the fridge; chopped the sausage and stuffed peppers and added them along with the tomato bruschetta to the mix; topped the frittata with grated Swiss and yum! Great appetizers became a great breakfast. And leftovers landed in our stomachs instead of—as they too often do—in the trash.   


How to make a deliciously frugal frittata 

Choose whatever ingredients you like, fresh, not so fresh (it's a great way to use up wilting vegetables) or left over. I’ve used leftover roasted potatoes, roasted peppers of all kinds (poblanos are a favorite), onions, garlic, tomatoes, zucchini, spinach, mushrooms, ham, sausage, green beans, bacon—you’re only limited by your tastes and imagination.

Sautee ingredients in olive oil or butter from pastured cows (that’s my latest food obsession, thanks to Nina Planck’s Good Food) to your preferred degree of tenderness in an oven-proof skillet.

Add herbs of your choice.

Add lightly beaten eggs (I usually use six or more, depending on size of skillet and number of people eating) with salt and pepper to taste.

Stir just enough to distribute eggs among ingredients; cook over medium-low heat until eggs start to set.

Add grated cheese of your choice on top and put under broiler for a few minutes, until cheese is melted and lightly golden.

Remove pan from oven and let frittata rest for five minutes. Slice and serve!

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