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Goodbye Disney, hello Marshall County

Grandma & Grandpa's Farm

by Steve Tarter | Photos by Ron Johnson |
A woman and man at a farmers market table.
Tony and Ginger Malek, owners, Grandma & Grandpa's Farm

Watching Tony Malek chat easily with customers as he dispenses produce and occasional preparation instructions on a Saturday morning at the Peoria Riverfront Market, you wouldn’t guess that, before he became a farmer, he was employed at Walt Disney World in Florida for 21 years.

 

They come by the name of the farm honestly. “We live in my grandma and grandpa’s home in Sparland that was built by my great-grandparents,” said Ginger Malek. “It was a Gordon-Van Tine kit home. Parts came by rail car to Camp Grove, about five miles away, and brought by horse and buggy to the homestead for assembly.”

“She put up with my dream,” said Tony Malek, 62, referring to his job in guest relations with Disney. “My job was to make your day happy,” he said of the help he provided guests when problems occurred at the amusement park.

For Ginger Malek, 54, returning to the family farm has been her dream and she’s making the most of it.

Various fresh vegetablesA graduate of the University of Illinois, where she majored in nutrition and business, Ginger worked in retail and as a human resources director while she and her husband lived in Florida. But the memories of growing up on a central Illinois farm never left her.

When the opportunity arose 10 years ago, the couple transitioned from Florida to the farm — the old-fashioned way. “We’re not certified organic but we’re chemical-free. Weeds are always a challenge. We don’t spray so everything has to be done by hand,” she said.

“We’re small. It’s just the two of us. We only have 25 people in our CSA,” said Ginger, noting that about an acre and a half of their seven-acre site is farmed, allowing the couple to raise produce as well as offering chickens and eggs to customers.

It’s more than just running a farm that she likes. “I enjoy the interaction with people. I love being able to try and educate kids who don’t know where their food comes from,” she said.

The couple makes time every Thursday afternoon for families and small groups to visit the farm, she said.

a sign for Grandma & Grandpa's FarmThe pair have seen the riverfront market grow in the 10 years they’ve been taking part. “You have 85 to 90 vendors. There’s arts and crafts. When we started, you couldn’t even get a bottle of water,” said Ginger.

They don’t look at other farmers as competition at the market, she said. “If we don’t have something, I try to refer people to vendors that might.”

Farm life means dealing with change, said Tony. “You have to follow the market. We always try to improve what we do.”

Sometimes that means going out in the cold or extreme heat, said Ginger. “It can get up to 130 degrees in the hoop houses sometimes,” she said of the structures the Maleks use to start seeds before transplanting them in the field.

A small farm can run into unexpected setbacks, too. “We bought 65 hens earlier this year to increase egg production. It takes four to five months before the chickens start laying but one morning, they were all gone. We had a mink attack. That put us back,” she said.

Customers purchasing produce at the Farmers MarketWhile life on the farm can be trying, there are benefits, she said. “In Florida, it took an hour and a half to drive 25 miles, two and a half hours in the rain. Here we can travel the same distance in a half-hour,” said Ginger.

As for future plans, Tony said he’d love to raise some four-legged animals. “Sheep or goats might be pretty easy. At this point, I need easy,” he said.

So, after spending more than 20 years working at Walt Disney World, has he made it back for a visit? “I haven’t,” said Tony, smiling. “I tell you what I miss, though — the friends I had there and the Disney cruises. They were a real vacation. Of course, that was with the employee discount, too.”

Steve Tarter

Steve Tarter

is a Peoria Magazine contributor who was born in England, raised in Boston, moved to Peoria to attend Bradley University and decided to stay. He has spent a career in journalism and public relations.
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