How One Cook County Farm is Highlighting Sustainability

One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Just ask Carl and Deb Smits, owners of Smits Farms in Chicago Heights. When they started their flower and vegetable operation in 1990, Illinois had just made it illegal for garbage dumps to accept yard waste.

How One Cook County Farm is Highlighting Sustainability

For the Smits, who were dedicated to sustainable farming practices, that ban created an opportunity. They began accepting grass clippings, leaves and other yard waste on their 30-acre farm in southeast Cook County the month the ban went into effect. It became the fertilizer for their first crops and continues to be their preferred method of growing more than 25 years later.

This decision has been integral to the success of their operation, which has grown from one greenhouse on that first 30 acres to 18 greenhouses across what is now a 158-acre operation in Cook and Will counties. What was first a bedding plant and vegetable farm has also now added herbs to its product list.

“In 1999, a new farmers’ market opened in Lincoln Park that we were anxious to be a part of,” Carl Smits says. “The Green City Market required that vendors have a locally sourced product that was grown in an environmentally responsible way, and that really fit what we were doing and the customers we were trying to serve.”

How One Cook County Farm is Highlighting Sustainability

It also required some additional work for Smits Farms. “To participate, you had to be either certified organic, sustainable or Food Alliance Certified,” Smits says, noting that each certification has its own requirements. “Since our fertilizer source is yard waste, we couldn’t be certified organic.”

Why? Because the yard waste comes from so many sources that there is no way to determine whether the grass clippings accepted at the farm were treated with chemicals before they arrived.

Blueprint for Success

The Smits family decided to complete certification through Food Alliance, a nonprofit that emphasizes conservation practices, reduced use of pesticides, food product integrity, enhanced working conditions for employees and protection of wildlife habitat.

“Food Alliance has a strong sustainability focus,” Smits says. “Their certification process provides a kind of blueprint that you can follow, while also offering the opportunity to customize it to your farm operation. They encourage you to consider how best to grow your product while protecting and enhancing the environment.”

While the immediate benefit of Food Alliance certification meant that Smits Farms could be part of the Green City Market, they count other benefits as well. “In addition to the focus on sustainable practices, what we learned through certification steered us to make improvements for employees who work here, customers who visit our farmstands and even the wildlife on the farm. We built bluebird and owl houses, for instance, not only to protect the birds but to help them thrive.”

“Sustainability in farming is about good stewardship,” Smits says. “It’s something we’ve been dedicated to and that we work to pass along to our children. Our employees and customers appreciate that commitment. We’re grateful for their loyalty, and we’re always looking for new ways to build on that commitment.”

By Cathy Lockman

Featured in Illinois Farm Bureau Partners magazine.