by Kelly Gates
Stade’s Farm & Market of McHenry, IL started as a dairy farm back in 1977. Over the years, Vern Stade, owner and operator of the business, saw the potential in retail agriculture and agritourism so he evolved the farm into a completely different entity altogether.
“I started growing produce in 1989 when a friend of mine asked to rent two acres on the corner of one of my fields,” Stade told Country Folks Grower. “He and his family were going to produce vegetables there, but when they changed their minds, I went forward with the plan and ended up really enjoying it.”
Stade had been growing corn and soybeans already. Those items were sold as commodities and the grower quickly realized the potential in selling vegetables directly to the public from a roadside retail stand at his farm.
As customers came to Stade’s Farm & Market to buy produce, some requested u-pick patches. Others hinted at the possibilities of a full-fledged destination farm, inspiring the Stade family to begin thinking about all sorts of activities and attractions.
“We started with hayrides and a pumpkin patch, and put in a petting zoo and corn maze the following year,” explained Stade. “The next year, we put in a lunch counter and a music stage, with the center of our operation being the farm shop.”
In 2006 a large new farm market was built on the farm. This allowed the festival and all of its activities to be moved out of the busy farmyard and into its own large designated area.
The farm was eventually outfitted with a large jumping pillow, pedal car tracks, a tire pyramid hill, pig races, the Bovine Befuddlement Maze — an attraction made from two double decker semi cattle trailers hooked together and filled with ramps and walls that create a winding path throughout the unit.
People can also watch large pumpkins shoot out of a cannon with a 40 foot barrel that is often aimed at old cars bound for the local junkyard.
In addition, there are three slides built into a 25-foot hillside — a single lane slide, plus a 4-lane and a 2-lane slide for those who wish to race each another.
“One of our most popular attractions is a combine harvester — harvesting components detached, of course — that we named ‘Frank’ after one of the characters in the movie ‘Cars.’ Up to 16 people can sit on top and enjoy a 20 to 30 minute ride around the farm,” said Stade. “We also have corn cannons, a barrel train, pony rides, several inflatables for kids to jump in and a large stage for concerts and for contemporary Christian worship services on Sundays from May through October.”
The farm is located midway between Milwaukee and Chicago about 25 miles west of Lake Michigan. Many activities and events are required to appeal to a population this large and diverse. Along with all of the activities, there is a retail store managed by Gayle Hubert, where people can buy all of the produce grown on site.
The long list of fresh fruits and vegetables includes asparagus, strawberries, sweet corn, pumpkins, green beans, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, pickles, cantaloupe, watermelon, lettuce, spinach, radishes, zucchini, squash, Indian corn, broom corn, raspberries and many other items.
“We have bee hives here on the farm and a beekeeper that processes the honey for us to sell. We also sell jams, jellies, barbeque sauce, dill and sweet pickles and even quilted items like placemats, throws, runners and table toppers,” said Hubert. “There is a bakery here too with donuts, pies, quick breads, cookies, brownies, cupcakes, muffins and homemade shortcake to sell along with our berries.”
According to Hubert, nearly every value-added or specialty item sold at the farm is connected to the produce grown there.
She sells canning jars and supplies. She also sells recipe books she has written that include the fruits and vegetables available in-house as the main ingredients.
Baskets woven in Ghana are another big hit in the store and the manager recently brought in even more containers.
“This year, I’ve put together a gift basket line with inexpensive baskets for customers to fill with produce and non food products from throughout the store,” she noted. “We will also be adding organic flours and several gluten free mixes since that seems to be a growing trend.”
Because people come out to the farm for several hours or more, many expect to find food and drinks for sale. So the Stades brought in vendors who offer many types of festival food.
Each month during the summer a special event is held. June features strawberry picking and a strawberry festival. July brings a nostalgic county fair themed weekend with country music, games and contests, along with many types of good old fashioned summertime food. In August, the special Bandstand Night on The Farm brings oldies rock and roll to the stage. Shades of Autumn, a fall festival, is held in September and October. All four weekends in September are themed beginning with the Antique Truck and Tractor Show, Classic Car Show, Praise on the Farm (contemporary Christian music concert), and Taste of Autumn.
With so many things to do, see, and taste at Stade’s Farm & Market, it would seem that the place is at its peak. But the Stade family plans to add even more in upcoming years.
“We want to expand our food choices and pick up a bigger concert venue with more bands and a greater variety of music,” said Stade. “We recently added a stationary combine with levers and controls for the kids to play with and a slide down the middle. We will be putting in a zip line and slingshots for tiny pumpkins this year too.”
As more and more customers have requested u-pick, the owners have responded with strawberries, pumpkins, raspberries, sugar snap peas, and other pickable produce. In 2013, they will be planting apple trees that will be ready to harvest within three to five years.
The orchard will make Stade’s Farm & Market that much more appealing to their large customer base and will likely attract others who have not yet visited one of the most renowned destination farms in the state of Illinois.
by Kelly Gates