• Eric Grant

Forging a Better Local Produce Market at Elawa Farm


This is a story of resilience and adaptation. Like the soil they tend, the people at Elawa Farm have spent a century adjusting to climate, changing ownership, and even fickle access to resources. It is precisely because of this ingenuity and resilience that drew Laura Calvert to join as the farm’s executive director in January 2020. Between its historical and architectural significance, and being situated next to an actual savanna, Laura says “There is no other farm like Elawa that I am aware of in the Midwest.”

This is not a story of the pandemic. At least, not in the way one would expect. Prior to joining Elawa, Laura worked for the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest program before being named Executive Director at Advocates for Urban Agriculture. She was barely getting settled at Elawa Farm Foundation when the world changed, sending much of the job description up in smoke. And yet, Laura’s initial reasons for joining Elawa—creating community-based programming with a positive impact on Lake County—allowed her to steer the ship and pivot their operations in a meaningful way. “We became truly essential to our community,” she says, “by offering healthy, local food, a beautiful landscape to walk around and feel restored, and virtual programming to keep folks engaged.” Much of the conversation surrounding Elawa’s impact on the area revolves around access to fresh produce, but often overlooked is how the land itself remained vital to health and well-being.

Around the country, parks and other outdoor environments saw an increase in usage by upwards of 165% during the pandemic. Even unconventional spots such as Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery, which used to average about 40-50 visitors per day, experienced 200-300 people enjoying their grounds every day in the summer of 2020. Elawa Farm was no different. North Shore residents from far and wide no longer saw Elawa as a place exclusively for weekends at the market and garden. Soon this former “gentleman’s farm” became an oasis for individuals and families needing a breath of fresh air away from life in lockdown. In a strange way, the interruption of life in 2020 helped fulfill the goal of turning the farm into an even more vital community presence.




 

The Gentleman Farmer

As America quickly industrialized in the late 19th century, landowners large and small began farming on their property with a focus on pleasure rather than profit. At the time, they were known as “gentleman farmers,” though today you could say that anyone who’s ever grown a tomato or basil plant in their backyard counts as a gentleman farmer. Elawa began in much the same vein, albeit on a massive scale. Built in 1917 the Elawa Farm Group was the brainchild of A. Watson Armour, who hired David Adler and Alfred Hopkins—two of the most significant estate architects working at the time. The namesake is a composite of ELsa and A. Watson Armour, and subsequently known as LeWa Farm, named for Leila and Wallace Carroll, who owned the property from 1954 until the City of Lake Forest decided to purchase it in 1998 to preserve its historic significance.

 

As Laura tells us, in the early 2000s a dedicated group of volunteers from the area led the charge in renovating the existing property to create educational programming and open the farm up to the public as a garden and market. “I think Elawa Farm is a truly community farm,” she explains. “[It’s] a place where the community can gather around food and agriculture, enjoy the grounds, and participate in our programming in so many ways.” Laura says the spirit of those early volunteers continues to thrive today, and everybody who works at Elawa is delighted by the outpouring of support from their neighbors.


So, what exactly can you get at Elawa Farm? During the open season (which runs May 14 through October 23), the hardworking staff and volunteers stock the market with a wide variety of produce grown on-site or sourced from local farms.

Of course, produce isn’t the only benefit of going local. Visitors are greeted by friendly team members who offer extensive knowledge about the seasonality of different produce, the best time to buy an ingredient, and even their favorite recipes. The educational experiences at Elawa have been endless and Laura has relished in seeing these learning opportunities blossom into a lifetime of better eating and better cooking. “When folks ask why we don’t have tomatoes or corn in June, we find this to be the perfect opportunity to discuss seasonal availability in the Midwest. We explain that it’s absolutely worth the wait to taste a vine-ripened heirloom tomato in August versus a grocery store tomato in March.” Take it from us: there is seriously nothing better than a basket of in-season produce from the passionate volunteers at Elawa.

Did you know Elawa does not only sell produce at the market? Martha Wood (mother to broker Charlie Wood) took on the unique challenge of reimagining the market with high-quality garden tools, accessories, market bags, candles, and so much more. The new items blend seamlessly with the already delicious local produce, and Laura is particularly excited for the opportunity to serve as an incubator for farms, businesses, and small independant vendors who share a passion for building a community on the North Shore.

We were excited to learn all about who Laura describes as “the hardest working creatures” on the farm: the honeybees! So we reached out to beekeeper Charenton Drake to learn more. Charenton has been keeping up to five hives at Elawa for about eighteen years. Talk about a symbiotic relationship…everybody benefits from the bees, who make sure the plants are properly pollinated and help keep things sweet with their freshly jarred honey (available at the market too, of course). Charenton explained that each year, their honeybees produce anywhere between 450 and 650 pounds of honey; quite a remarkable feat considering the average bee produces about 1/8th teaspoon of honey in their six-week lifespan. At the height of production, a single hive can have 60,000-80,000 bees! With all those workers ready to pollinate, it's a good thing Elawa more than provides with plant life. Not only does the farm have its vegetable garden, but the expansive savannah nearby features an abundance of wildflowers. This unique ecosystem means that no two years of jarred honey are exactly alike. Depending on the available wildlife in a particular year, Charenton explained that sometimes the honey is light and brightly sweet, and other times its darker with a richer flavor profile. “Whatever is the most prolific flower in any given season,” she says, “that’s what affects color and sweetness the most.”

 

Honeybee Health Tip

Experiencing bad allergies? Eating locally-sourced honey is thought to be the sweetest way to alleviate your symptoms by helping your body adjust to local pollen dotting the air.

 

The winter months along Chicago's North Shore can be famously harsh, especially for tiny creatures who only work in the summertime. Even so, Charenton and her crew considers themselves laissez-faire keepers. Rather than constantly check on the state of a hive in winter and adjusting it with chemicals, Charenton maintains "The bees know whats best for their hive. It's a little bit survival-of-the-fittest, but bees don't really do anything when it's cold." The beekeepers reduce the hives' entryways to prevent predators from invading, and trust that the bees will huddle together nice and cozy and wait for spring to arrive. Once the hives have worked tirelessly for several warm summer months, there's finally enough honey to sell to the eager Elawa customers. Charenton's team only harvests once a year, typically in mid-September. Jars are then rationed to have enough stock to sell at three distinct times: in the immediate Autumn, then again around Christmastime, and finally the following springtime when Elawa Farm opens up again. It may take the bees until September to churn out the liquid gold, but the Garden Market knows everybody's yearning for their own jar as soon as May flowers bloom.


Laura's Favorite Day at the Farm

When Olive Well broker Lauren arrived at Elawa Farm for their magazine photoshoot, it was Laura Calvert’s favorite day: garlic day. “I love that garlic is the last thing you plant in the year,” she says, “and always right around Halloween. Since garlic is a bulb, it has all the food it needs to survive the winter and grow. I also find it to be a magical crop, with its healing and antibacterial properties. Garlic is also one of the first crops to pop up in the spring, which is such a welcome sight after the long winter.” A magical food that connects Halloween with springtime? I think we just found our new favorite produce, too!

 

Laura talks a lot about how Elawa survives thanks to the community, staff, and its many volunteers, and we wanted to know how everyone can get involved. This season, Laura says they’re looking especially for help in the garden. Open volunteer days are every Wednesday morning throughout the growing season. It’s an opportunity to learn more about all aspects of farming and gardening while helping the continued efforts to feed Elawa’s Lake County neighbors in need. We encourage everyone to head to elawafarm.org to learn more about volunteer opportunities and get involved in making a difference in your community.

In our time covering small business owners across Chicagoland, one thing remains clear: you never have to go far to meet people passionate about creating wholesome, communal spaces where everybody is welcome and where everybody can pitch in and make our corner of the world a little bit kinder, a little bit smarter, and a lot more excited about fresh-picked fruit. Elawa Farm is all of this and so much more.

 

Laura’s Best Market Recommendation

We asked Laura about her favorite thing to pick up at the Elawa Farm Market on weekend mornings, and the answer was simple and sweet: “Anything with Rhubarb!”