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‘Our food speaks for itself’

by Lisa Coon | Photos by Ron Johnson |
food

There’s nothing like homegrown produce — ah, those tomatoes! — available at a farmstand or farmers market near you

The options Peoria-area residents have to stock up on locally grown produce are as bountiful as the variety of vegetables and fruits grown.

Whether it’s going to a u-pick farm, stopping by a farmstand, perusing a farmers market or subscribing to a home delivery service, there are plenty of ways to reap what others sow.

It’s the fresh tomatoes, for sure

Patrick Fiedler of Fid’s Valley Produce in Washington has been carrying on the legacy started by his late grandfather, Lowell Fiedler, for about eight years. He grows tomatoes, a variety of peppers, zucchini and herbs on five to six acres in the lower field of his parent’s farm at 152 Old Mink Farm Road.

Patrick Fiedler of Fid's Valley Produce is starting his next generation farmer
Patrick Fiedler of Fid’s Valley Produce is starting his next generation farmer
Mary Beth and Patrick Fiedler of Fid's Valley Produce, Washington
Mary Beth and Patrick Fiedler of Fid’s Valley Produce, Washington

“My grandpa, until he passed away, had been doing it for 40 years on a much smaller scale and I would go down and help him,” Fiedler said. “He was doing dialysis and I basically took over the field for him. I got to know the people who came to our market, and it just became a lot of fun.”

Like many kids, Fiedler didn’t much care for tomatoes, he admitted. “But as I got older, I realized how good the tomatoes we grow are and why they’re so good. What makes them so good is they’re truly home grown. I know that sounds silly, but there are a lot of markets that have hothouse tomatoes brought up from the south that are advertised as homegrown,” he said.

“The texture is rock hard, not like ours. I think what makes them truly delicious is they are grown in the sunlight and in the soil.”

He estimates that 98% of his customers stop by the onsite farmstand because of those juicy tomatoes, a Big Beef hybrid this year. Occasionally, Fiedler will do a pop-up stand at farmers’ markets in Morton and the East Peoria Levee District when he has excess produce.

“I’d like to give a lot of credit to my grandpa,” said Fiedler. “He taught me how to farm, and his friend, John Schulzki, taught me how to grow from seed.”

His wife, Mary Beth, also gets a pat on the back, as the couple juggles the farm, work and raising their family, which includes 10-month-old twins, Hunter and JoCe.

A teaching farm

Randy “Farmer Randy” Starnes began operating Crooked Row Farm in Chillicothe about six years after the farm where his brother, Danny, grew watermelon, cantaloupe and peaches, had gone dormant for a couple years following Danny’s death.

Randy Starnes of Crooked Row Farm in Chillicothe with his peppers, just one of the many varieties of produce he grows
Randy Starnes of Crooked Row Farm in Chillicothe with his peppers, just one of the many varieties of produce he grows

The 10-acre farm at 4623 Lakeland Lane had been in the family since 1981. Today, Starnes plants tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, green beans, zucchini, bitter melon, red gourd, long beans, Indian okra, sweet and green onions, lettuce, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, strawberries, black and red raspberries and pumpkins on five acres.

In memory of his brother, he put in five peach trees last year, but the early frost this year killed the budding fruit.

“When I started this farm, I wanted it to be more of an educational farm,” Starnes said. “When kids come out, I try to teach them. An onion, for example. Every leaf on an onion is a ring of the onion. I’ll teach them how to pick a ripe watermelon, just things like that.”

Even the farm’s name, Crooked Row Farm, has a story.

“My wife said I couldn’t put in a straight row if I tried,” Starnes said, laughing. “I have old tractors without four-wheel drive, so sometimes it’s tough to put in a straight row.”

Customers can stop by the farm, where Starnes has a stand, or spend some time picking their own fruit and vegetables. Starnes does assist in the u-pick when something like lettuce or cauliflower needs to be cut with a knife.

“As soon as we start getting produce, we’ll have stuff set up at the stand,” he said. “A lot of people say we’re old-fashioned. I have more customers this year than I ever have.”

He also sets up at farmers markets in Chillicothe and at Peoria’s Riverfront Market and Junction City. He’s considering adding the East Peoria Levee District.

“People really like local food. They call us the hidden gem,” Starnes said. “We only sell what we grow. We’re on sand here so we don’t grow good sweet corn, but a friend of mine does. So I pick his and sell his corn for him.”

Organic and free home delivery

The Poeppel family — Anita, Brian and daughters Lucy, Susannah and Laura — is passionate about growing food with no pesticides, improving the soil and respecting nature.

Anita and Brian Poeppel of Broad Ranch Farm in Chillicothe
Anita and Brian Poeppel of Broad Ranch Farm in Chillicothe

“We try to do as little harm as possible to the land,” said Anita Poeppel, a Stark County farm girl. “We try to coexist and not dominate the land.”

Anita Poeppel feeds chickens at the Broad Ranch Farm in Chillicothe
Anita Poeppel feeds chickens at the Broad Ranch Farm in Chillicothe
Lucy Krider of Bradford picks fresh garlic at the Broad Ranch Farm
Lucy Krider of Bradford picks fresh garlic at the Broad Ranch Farm

The Poeppels moved to Broad Branch Farm at 22000 Berchtold Road northwest of Chillicothe in 2016 after farming for more than a decade on a small farm near Wyoming.

They started selling on a small scale at a farmers market in Naperville in the western suburbs of Chicago, where Brian had grown up. They expanded their operation, providing vegetables, salad greens, grass-fed beef, pastured pork and chicken, pastured eggs, herbs and flowers, to members of their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).

Today, they also offer free home delivery for orders over $25 to a wide area around Peoria and Chicago’s western suburbs. 

“CSA is a smaller part of our business,” Anita said. “We sell year-round, offering home delivery. The home delivery model is pretty nice.”

Customers can go to their website at broadbranchfarm.com and select what items they’d like to have delivered.

“We firmly believe local organic agriculture can bring wellness to our lives, our communities and our environment,” Anita said. “We believe in knowing where our food is grown, who grew it and what growing practices were used.”

The family’s vegetables and salad greens are grown without pesticides, GMOs and outside inputs. They focus on soil health to give the plants protection from disease and insects and to promote the biological activity that makes plants grow well. Even the flowers and herbs are pesticide-free.

“We literally handpick your food just a day or two before it’s delivered,” Anita said. “You’ll taste the difference.”

Their chickens, cattle and pigs are all treated with the same care and principles, with no growth hormones, antibiotics or GMOs.

“There’s no way the grocery store can compare,” Anita said. “Our food speaks for itself.”

Lisa Coon

is a Peoria native who had a long career in the newspaper industry before moving into marketing and communications.  

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