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The Grass is Always Greener

Going organic at Prospera Farms.
Sunday May 22, 2005.     By Jennifer Wennig
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

This was to be a day of truths.

Truth. I cannot and probably should not sing within ear shot of another living soul. But solo road trips are synonymous with sipping self-serve cappuccino from a Styrofoam cup (purchased at the Stuckey’s gas station); eating junk food, convincing yourself that calories consumed in the car don’t count; and signing. Loudly.

Say what you will, but my preferred road trip selections are played by stations like The Lite. I realize I’m quickly descending into pathetic-ville with this admission, but for a stretch along 94 I was belting out the words to "Dust in the Wind," "Memories" and the "The Rose" with tremendous enthusiasm yet little, if any, tone.

Truth. Open country roads beg one to speed. When you do find yourself behind a slow-moving vehicle (think tractors), passing should be a cinch. But I rarely dare to pass on two lane roads even though that dotted white line makes this permissible. I just don’t think it’s a wise move. Another speeding car piloted by another urban fugitive distractedly proclaiming “look, that barn is even cuter than the last 27,” spells danger.

Truth. Organic does not have to mean expensive produce at Whole Foods. Like many of you, I’ve started buying and eating organic assuming it’s better for me. And, it’s everywhere. On menus at trendy eateries, on the shelves of my favorite neighborhood gourmet groceries. But, what’s the deal? Who’s growing it and what exactly makes it “organic.”

Grab your overalls. We’re going farming. We’ll at least we’re going to meet some farmers as this time of year is mostly about preparation, not harvest.

Leo Sances and Michael Zink, co-owners of Prospera Farm of Berlin, WI, are two savvy former Chicagoans striving to raise our awareness about the immense benefits of supporting local organic farms. “Basically, organic refers to growing systems based in nature,” offered Sances. “Organic is not trendy, it’s healthy. Many of the older people out here are organic, because that’s the way they used to grow. There is a progressive culture here.”

Organic farms grow crops without the use of chemical pesticides or fertilizers. When pesticides are called for, as when taking the pesky Colorado potato beetle to task, an organic pesticide made from canola oil and an extract of chrysanthemum flowers is used.

"To organically grow our crops, the soil must be healthy," said Sances. "Obviously, we can eat and sell the eggs, but the chicken manure is an essential bi-product. Chicken manure is rich in nitrogen which is highly beneficial to the soil." The manure can be taken from the coop and spread, let’s say in the orchard, or the chickens can graze, eating the grass and bugs, and when they, shall we say relieve themselves, nitrogen will naturally return to the soil. That’s sustainability.

Leo and Michael also share their 60 acres with two beloved bulldogs (Beatrice and Sophie), Tucker the cat, bees (honey producing and essential for pollination) and at least one slimy, slithering snake that evoked my only city girl shriek. Leo and I, with Bea bringing up the rear, were strolling about the farm when all of sudden a long, skinny, black thing appeared in my path. Leo didn’t blink, but I was freaked. It wasn’t any more unnerving than when a rat actually started to climb the steps of my former apartment front porch when I was, hello, sitting there minding my own business. Brazen city rat. The country snake knew his place and just kept-a-wiggling’ along.

After my hosts nibbled on sandwiches and shared tea with me, we headed to the greenhouse to transplant tomato seedlings into larger pots. Last summer I raised container tomato plants. While it was so fulfilling to watch the fruit (did you know tomatoes are a fruit?) bloom and eventually be enjoyed atop a spinach salad or on a lightly toasted sandwich of avocado and cucumber, I couldn’t help but feel that this was different. These tomatoes may end up on someone’s homemade grilled pizza this summer. That’s pretty heady stuff and wasn’t something I had given much thought.

My time working in the greenhouse wasn’t terribly long. But it left a deep impression that has lasted much longer than the dirt that settled into my nails.

One final truth. Every day Leo and Michael rise to do essential, exhausting and heartfelt work. Maybe they are forging a path that other Chicagoans can follow. The seeds for Prospera Farm were planted when, still living in Chicago, they befriended an elderly neighbor with a double lot and began growing vegetables, medicinal herbs and flowers in the space.

We live in a culture that is so disconnected from the foods we eat. Maybe if we took greater interest in where and by whom our food was raised we wouldn’t accept eating a piece of chemically treated produce that traveled more than 1,000 miles before finding its resting place in the Jewel.

Traffic Jammed...Where Country and City Seamlessly Intersect:

Prospera Farm represents an ideal Traffic Jam. You needn’t travel to Wisconsin to delight in the fruits of Leo and Michael's labor. Beginning in June, Prospera Farm provides monthly organic CSA drop boxes available for purchase at Sprout Home (745 N. Damen). For a mere $35, you can enjoy a bushel box full of the freshest, naturally raised produce in the comfort of your own kitchen. To learn more, visit

If you prefer to have your tasty organic vegetables prepared and served to you while sipping a dirty martini, you’re in luck. Prospera’s crops can be found in the kitchens of some of Chicago’s finest restaurants including Spring, Crofton on Wells and Green Zebra.

Jennifer Wennig chronicles her city-goes-country adventures the second Tuesday of every month in "Traffic Jam." To recommend something she should try, please email her your brilliant ideas.


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