by Gail March Yerke
By 3 a.m. on any given morning you’ll find the Nichols family loading trucks for that day’s farmers markets. With the hour-long drive into Chicago and several hours for set-up, they put in 14 hours by the time they return home. Like many vegetable growers, Nichols Farm and Orchard attends farmers markets most days of the week throughout the growing season. Their Certified Sustainable Illinois farm grows over 1,000 varieties of vegetables and more than 200 varieties of apples. A diverse collection of unique produce, a multi-layered business model and sustainability practices have helped define this successful Midwestern farm operation.
The Early Years
It began in 1978, when Lloyd and Doreen Nichols bought their first 10 acres of land in Marengo, about 60 miles northwest of Chicago. At the time, they both commuted two hours daily for their jobs at O’Hare International Airport. “We’d work all day and then come home and work some more after that,” said Lloyd. Eventually, they added farm animals as well as a four-acre garden and a small orchard to the homestead. The Nichols’ goal at the time was to simply provide their own fresh fruit, vegetables, butter and cheese for their growing family.
As the garden began producing more than they needed, Lloyd sold vegetables from the back of a truck at the Evanston Farmers Market. More than 40 years later, they still attend that market, along with a dozen other farmers markets in the Windy City. From fingerling potatoes to their collection of heirloom tomato and apple varieties, they have developed a following from both customers and chefs alike for specialty items.
Today, their three sons help manage the operation’s 40 seasonal and year-round staff, each focusing on one area of the family agribusiness. Nick manages restaurant sales and updates their website each week with seasonal product availability; Chad coordinates their multiple farmers markets; Todd’s focus is field production.
As adjoining farmland became available over the years, the family kept adding acreage to their original homestead. Nichols Farm and Orchard has grown to over 500 acres, with 300 acres in field vegetables and a 60-acre orchard. Greenhouses cover 30,000 square feet, with just over 4,000 feet of that in hydroponic production. Part of the farm operation is located at a secondary location where their CSA program is based. There, a 10,000-square-foot cold house supports the cleaning, packaging and storing of fresh-picked product. A large capacity Allround vegetable processor takes up one corner of the building where incoming produce is cleaned and graded, running up to five tons through per hour. There’s a large walk-in cooler in another corner and a packaging line for CSA and restaurant orders along the opposite side of the building.
The orchard is home to over 200 varieties of apples, 40 peach trees and 40 pear trees. New varieties are added each year on a trial basis and the orchard also offers many unique heirloom apple varieties, each with their own story and characteristics. Their online store offers shipping during apple season. Lloyd has a chart showing each variety and where it was planted since the orchard began.
Nichols’ website offers an online store with daily delivery offered to over 90 restaurants in metropolitan Chicago. Weekly emails are sent to chefs to let them know what is available each week. Lloyd said of the pandemic shutdowns, “At first, it devastated us. In the beginning, some of the farmers markets were cancelled and the restaurants that were closed represent 40% to 50% of our sales. We did make up for some of that with our increase in CSA sales though.”
Customers can choose from four different CSA types at Nichols Farm and Orchard. They can pick up their weekly three-quarter-bushel box share from over 40 Chicagoland locations or have it delivered directly to their home. A 22-week “Standard Share” comes with 10 to 12 different vegetables and seasonal fruits. The “Chef’s Premium” will have that product mix along with four to five additional specialty items. Their “Small Fruit and Vegetable Share,” suggested for couples and singles who do not cook too much, contains six to eight items with fruit almost every week. A “Fall Share” offers the bounty of late autumn crops for seven weeks in November and December, including apples, sweet potatoes, squash, onions and an abundance of leafy greens grown in the greenhouses. Families can expect to spend between $30 and $65 a week depending on their CSA share selection.
From the beginning, Lloyd had a vision for sustainability for their farm. The building where fruits and vegetables are processed is cooled by a geothermal system and its roof supports 326 solar panels. The farm also has a windmill that provides additional electricity.
“Our geothermal system has a five-acre field of pipes underground,” said Lloyd. The same system helps heat their greenhouses and other buildings during winter months. “I was a gardener as a kid. When I was 10 years old I had my own piece of the garden from my dad. My brother would go out and play baseball and I would be happy in the garden. I don’t think I know anyone greener than me,” he added.
Besides investing in various forms of renewable energy, the farm plants 500 to 1,000 trees each year. This past year several hundred sugar maples were planted for future maple syrup production.
Lloyd and Doreen still live on the original farm and their three sons and families have each built a home on the property as well. “Variety is our specialty, and we only sell what we grow ourselves,” Lloyd said. “In 40-some years, I’ve seen a lot. We started with 100 varieties and have grown to over 1,000 varieties of vegetables and fruits.”
Today, their sons and grandchildren work and live on the farm, carrying on Lloyd’s spirit and love for the land for future generations.