La Vida Local: Life Lessons on an Illinois Farm | Midwest Living

La Vida Local: Life Lessons on an Illinois Farm

On an organic farm in Illinois, a weekend of cushy tent camping and Mediterranean-inspired cooking reinforces the ties that bind us—deliciously and indelibly—to the land.

As the sun begins its summer slide, casting deep shadows across the interstate, my stomach growls emphatically. I fantasize out loud about the roast chicken waiting for us at Kinnikinnick Farm.

Cue my daughter: “Please don’t say it’s one of their chickens.”

When you tell your 6-year-old about camping in the country, you talk a lot about feeding hens and pigs. You avoid the bit about eating them. We’re miles away still, but Kinnikinnick has forced my hand. I plunge into the truth with a big, fat smile.

 “Well, actually it is. That’s what’s cool about a farm! Because you see the animals, you know they were happy.”

Eleanor seems satisfied, but I sense I haven’t heard the last of this conversation. A year later, I still haven’t. Kinnikinnick Farm was a revelation. She learned how to light a wood stove. (Patiently.) I learned how to slide pizzas off a peel. (Quickly.) We both learned why newly laid eggs are shiny. (The enzymatic coating, naturally.) And like every family that stays in the Illinois farm’s five cabin-style tents, we learned what it really means to be part of a vibrant local-food community.

When they bought Kinnikinnick in 1987, David and Susan Cleverdon never expected to host guests or impart life lessons. They just wanted a place to turn their overgrown backyard garden into a business. They found it on 114 acres 25 miles northeast of Rockford, a short hop from Wisconsin. “I’m amazed when I think about it,” Susan tells me, “because we were in our 50s. David’s vision was to grow produce of the highest quality for customers and chefs. Mine was to create a place to share with my friends and family, a homestead. From my point of view, you and all the families who come to stay are part of what I dreamed of.”

Kinnikinnick’s furnished tents come from a Dutch outfit called Feather Down Farm Days. That company manages reservations, but Susan and David set the tone. She is the ebullient grandma who knows every child’s name; he is the taciturn farmer dispensing facts of life from a tractor seat. They anticipate every need, but respect every guest’s privacy. And the food is amazing.

Kinnikinnick Farm’s five tents are both plush and primitive. (You’ll sleep under fluffy duvets, but heat water for your French press on a woodstove.) For their first meal, most guests skip cooking and order host Susan Cleverdon’s roast chicken, delivered to the tent in a basket.

We get our first taste that night. Susan serves our chicken on a bed of crostini and baby arugula, glazed in lemony drippings and as bright and peppery as a spring radish. She shows us around our new home, explaining the pioneer-style pump and sink, oil lamps and cold chest. She also points the way to the clean, spacious shared bathroom—and to another girl about Eleanor’s age. The two play outside until fireflies dance and candles flicker.

I wake to see smoke curling from the next tent’s chimney. Redwing blackbirds chatter in the lettuce and mint. We walk through the dew in our pajamas to the farm shop. “You hope people come who appreciate what it is we’re trying to do here with food,” Susan would later tell me. I do. In addition to their own premium Italian greens and homestead maple-ginger sausage, they stock things like warm bread and award-winning Carr Valley cheese. From striking the first match to washing the last skillet with stove-heated water, breakfast takes two hours.

At 10 o’clock, we hear a rumble. Chores. Everyone climbs aboard David’s tractor-drawn wagon to see young chickens free-range for the first time. “They’re going to be shell-shocked,” he warns. Before an audience of rapt, crouching children, the birds hop out of the coop, dart back, then step fully into the sun.

(Clockwise from top left): David Cleverdon surveys his freshly tilled fields; besides hundreds of chickens and a handful of dairy goats, Kinnikinnick’s menagerie includes pasture-raised pigs and a pair of miniature donkeys (second and third photos); Kinnikinnick specializes in top-quality Italian greens like Tuscan kale.

And so it goes. At each stop, David illuminates how a farm works with humor, honesty and none of the perky platitudes I’d bandied about in the car. In the henhouse: “Did you know chickens will eat their own eggs? They have no civic virtue.” At the pigpen: “Which one’s named Pork Chop?” By the hives: “Did you taste our honey? The bees go right over to those trees with the white on the top. Those are locust trees in bloom.”

After lunch—I pan-fry grass-fed beef burgers to eat on brioche buns—the farm falls into a postprandial haze. Eleanor and I flop in the shade outside the farmhouse kitchen. The screen door bangs occasionally. She asks again about eating animals, and this time I fare better. “Remember the water cycle at school? That’s kind of what happens here, too.” On a scrap of paper, I draw everything we’ve seen today, a web of flora, fauna and arrows representing the ecosystem of a healthy farm.

That night, staff and guests gather for wood-fired pizza. I pile mine with fresh goat’s milk ricotta. While the kids play with squirt  guns in the dark, David sits—finally—and talks, about everything. About how Italians cook simply to let every ingredient shine. About how he wants to grow peppers but hasn’t found the perfect variety. About how so many neighboring farms have shifted back toward sustainability. “We have been doing a variation of this for millennia,” he says. “There is something very fundamental about it. Eating local isn’t a fad.  It’s who we are as human beings.”

Twice weekly in summer, David lights a massive wood-fired pizza oven. It takes all afternoon to reach 700°. Susan (bottom left) and her daughter Erin have perfected a dead-simple tomato sauce and a dough that yields puffy-yet-crispy pies.

A storm rolls through overnight, wind thumping the canvas walls. When David trundles past for chores, the kids run after him in rubber boots and bedhead. I stay behind to pack and pay our shop tab, but I save one task for Eleanor. Together, we carry our compost pail to the henhouse and dump out our beautiful, messy scraps—strawberry tops, lettuce, a crust of brioche. The final arrow of our own Kinnikinnick circle. The chickens dig in.

Most kids forgo the tents’ two bedrooms for the cozy cupboard bed. 

What we ate and drank—by distance

Pancakes: David and Susan Cleverdon can tell you how far every food travels to reach your plate at Kinnikinnick.  The Lonesome Stone Milling pancake mix in the farm shop is made from organic grains grown in Wisconsin’s Driftless Region 108 miles away.

Bacon: Unusually meaty, Kinnikinnick Farm’s house bacon spoiled me forever on the regular stuff. The pigs snuffle in the mud 550 feet up the hill from our tent; the pork is cured and smoked 40 miles away.

Milk: 100 feet from the goat herd, we sipped fresh goat’s milk from a Mason jar; it was creamy and a little funky, like chèvre. Susan and David’s neighbor Barbara supplies a pretty bar of handmade goat’s milk soap for each tent.

Beets: Just 11 miles across the state line in Beloit, Wisconsin, Bushel and Peck’s is a bustling market-cafe with its own 5-acre organic farm. Its zingy pickled asparagus, beets and dill cukes are available in Kinnikinnick’s shop.

Meet the greens of Kinnikinnick Farm

The Cleverdons grow a little of everything, but Chicago chefs prize their leafy greens. Look for these or similar varieties at well-stocked stores or farmers markets. (In Chicago, Kinnikinnick has stalls at the Evanston and Green City markets.)

Cavolo nero David likes to use Italian names, but you may know this wrinkly brassica as Tuscan or lacinato kale. Widely available, it’s more tender than the curly kind. Try sauteeing chopped leaves with garlic.

Arugula Freed from bagged salad mixes, arugula can be as versatile as spinach. Dress the young leaves in olive oil and lemon juice, pile them on a hot pizza, or wilt a few handfuls in breakfast hash.

Minestra nera David buys the seeds for this hearty variety from a small company in Italy. The distinctive staghorn leaves have an earthy flavor that pairs well with pasta.

Little gems Besides being adorably small-scale, these petite green or red lettuces are extra sweet. Serve a halved head for a modern twist on a wedge salad.

Spigariello An heirloom variety from southern Italy, this rare broccoli cousin looks a bit like kale, but has a sweeter, more grassy flavor.

Take the trip

Kinnikinnick Farm books up early. Tents sleep six and have cold water and primitive refrigeration; guests share a pleasant bathroom. In addition to good food and fresh air, expect some farm-life realities, like flies and rooster wake-up calls.

Try the recipes

For Kinnikinnick Farm recipes and more recipes from our May/June 2016 issue, click or tap here

(Clockwise from top left): Grill-Roasted Chicken with Arugula and Crostini; Asparagus with Poached Egg and Gremolata Breadcrumbs;  Roast Potatoes with Mint Pesto; French Lentils with Sausage and Snap Peas. 

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