Wine and Roses: Sustainable Ag Tour in Northwest Illinois
By Constance McCarthy
Storm clouds rolling in from the west on August 13 did not deter a group of hardy folks interested in taking in a different angle of sustainable agriculture. This tour began at Bright Flower Nursery, just north of Stockton, Illinois. We were greeted by Jeanie McKewan, one of the owners, who led us through the certified-organic gardens; flowers and shrubs are grown and cut for sale to Whole Foods and other florists in Illinois and Wisconsin. She and Michael Staver have operated this nursery since 2006.
Jeanie cuts around 200 dahlias each week, including the striking ‘Naomi’ (part of the Karma series). Both sea holly (Eryngium) and several brightly colored varieties of Gomphrena (globe amaranth) work well in fresh bouquets and are also good for drying. A perennial sunflower, Heliopsis helianthoides ‘Summer Nights’, was also quite striking, with its blazing yellow flowers and deep burgundy stems. Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) bears vivid purple flowers in long, arching clusters. Pink and red cockscomb (Celosia argentea) showed off their velvety flowers. Shrubs grown for their flowers include hydrangeas and peonies. Even ornamental peppers are grown for sale to florists.
But florists aren’t just interested in flowers, of course. Jeanie told the group that florists are always looking for more unusual “greens” to add to bouquets and arrangements. Leaves of coral bells (Heuchera) are a favorite for bridal bouquets. The flower stalks of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ are cut before the blooms open; the leaves are stripped off, leaving the closed green flower head. These add a more solid, structural element to arrangements.
Just as the worst of rain began to fall, the tour moved inside to the greenhouse, where vegetables, herbs, and edible and ornamental flowers are also grown organically. The sliding bench-tops in one greenhouse allow them to utilize nearly 90% of the floor space for growing. A special paint is applied to the outer side of the glass roof to provide shade in the spring. As the season wears on, the paint slowly washes away, allowing more sun to filter in. The flowers that grow in the greenhouse don’t have to put energy into growing stronger stems to resist the strong winds that often buffet the area. This allows the greenhouse flowers to direct their energy into growing significantly longer stems, a quality that is much appreciated (and paid for!) by florists. The longer the stem, the more the flower will fetch on the wholesale market. No vegetables are even placed in the flower cooler, as they can give off ethylene gas that is damaging to cut flowers.
The nursery also grows some herbs and beautiful hanging baskets of lettuce. The baskets are lined with angel moss, and a variety of colorful lettuce seedlings are tucked into the sides and the top. These baskets are rather labor-intensive to create, but Jeanie reports that they are a popular item.
The group then migrated 20 miles west to Famous Fossil Winery, where all the grapes are grown biodynamically. Indeed, this is the only biodynamic vineyard in the entire Midwest. The vineyard was planted in 2004, and the winery began operations in 2008. The vineyard contains approximately 2,100 vines on just under 5 acres of land. There are 12 different varieties of grapes grown here, including seven that are being grown especially for research purposes. All varieties are selected for their cold hardiness and suitability for winemaking. Pam Rosmann, one of the owners, says that visitors often enquire about shiraz and other varieties of grapes that simply can’t be grown in our climate. The winery is thus not just a place to sample and buy wine, but also to learn about the process of growing grapes and making wine that is unique to this region of the country.
The winery is located north of Freeport, in its own little microclimate that is especially suited to growing grapes. Grape vines can send down roots as far as 70 feet in search of water, and it takes three years after planting before a vine will yield grapes for harvest. During those three years, much care and attention is given to the vines, training and pruning them. Clusters are also thinned, and Pam really deliberates about which cluster will be preserved and which will be sacrificed for the sake of the one, best cluster. This makes her very protective of the clusters that she is nurturing. A word to the wise: don’t ever just reach out and grab a cluster off a vine if you are on a tour! These clusters aren’t like ears of corn growing on a stalk, such that you can just pick them willy-nilly.
Each vine ultimately yields around one gallon of wine. As part of the winemaking process, all of the vineyard’s grapes are supplemented with grapes from the Quad Cities, Durand, and other small vineyards in the area. To make their rhubarb wine, the winery also buys fruit from many area gardeners and small farms. In order to have enough blackberry juice to make wine, some juice is obtained from Oregon state, where blackberries grow in abundance.
Pam added that they chose biodynamics over standard organic practices because biodynamics is concerned with much more than simply the plant. Biodynamics also focuses on building up the fertility of the soil, and planting and growing in harmony with the natural forces at work in the world. Biodynamic preparations, made from herbs and minerals, are applied to the plants and soil, and beneficial insects are nurtured and encouraged. Birds and bats are welcomed, as they eat harmful insects. Even snakes help out, eating the voles that can damage the grapevines. Netting is used to keep the birds off of the vines, lest they devour a crop of grapes before they can be harvested. Some vineyards have started to use baby-doll sheep to reduce fossil fuel usage and keep the weeds down between the rows of vines. As their name implies, these sheep are short enough that they can’t reach the grapes, but they are more than happy to graze away on the weeds and grass in the vineyard.
Pam’s husband, Ken, gave the group a tour of the rooms where the harvested grapes are stored, and the wine is made, stored, and bottled. The grape harvest beings in August, with the work being done early in the day. The harvesting is generally stopped by 10:30, as grapes that are too warm when harvested can be plagued by bacterial growth. The Rosmanns are especially careful about this, as bacterial growth can destroy a batch of wine. They work closely with other vineyards that supply the winery, in order to prevent such problems.
The tour, which was organized by the University of Illinois Extension, concluded with a lunch prepared with many locally-sourced ingredients. As it was August in the Midwest, there was an abundance of fresh vegetables for salads and sandwiches. A wine tasting was included in the tour, and many took advantage of this offer. Best of all, the rain stopped in time for folks to enjoy their lunch out on the terrace overlooking the hills of the vineyard.