Smile Politely

You are where you eat: North Avoca Farms

We’re not Chicago, but it’s hard to deny that Champaign-Urbana serves up something special in terms of restaurant selection. From casual eateries like Black Dog and Farren’s to establishments further up the food chain like Carmon’s, Bacaro, and the recently opened Big Grove Tavern, budgets and waistlines are the only limits to eating out in this town. But while expert preparation and talented chefs account for much of the temptation, the quality ingredients specially selected by C-U restaurateurs are the foundation of the yum factor.

Nowadays, farm-to-table concepts and locavore patrons drive a culinary climate bent on organic produce and sustainable farming — the closer to home, the better. Lucky for us, the same farms gracing prestigious Chicago restaurant menus are in C-U’s backyard … our backyard being a 75 mile radius, that is. An hour drive as opposed to days spent in warehouses and transport means fresher food with more nutrients and flavor. It also translates into supporting local farmers and often looking the person who grew your food in the eye. Quality abounds.

About 60 miles away on the outskirts of Fairbury, Illinois, sits a perfect example. North Avoca Farm supplies quality, pesticide-free produce to high-caliber restaurants throughout the state. With the help of her husband, Perry, owner Alma Meister-Augsburger painstakingly farms just a few acres of land using only her hands, expert knowledge of soil and plants, water, and sunshine.

Though the acreage was originally a gravel pit, it was abandoned and converted to farmland roughly six decades ago. While the property North Avoca sits on has not been passed down from one generation to the next, farming the property is a family tradition for its current owner. “When I was growing up, we farmed it for someone so I remember coming up here as a kid, farming beans,” said Alma during my visit to her home. Alma still grows produce at her mother’s home nearby, where her grandparents also lived. As adults, her brother bought the bulk of the property (a total of 80 acres), while Alma has 30 acres, mostly full of timber, that she has farmed full time since 2007. Though the trees prevent large-scale farming, the woods of North Avoca house a large population of oak trees, at the base of which Maitake (a.k.a. Hen of the Woods) mushrooms grow before being snapped up by eager chefs.

In her gardens, Alma gives tender care to a wide variety of plants, from common crops like tomatoes, asparagus, and rhubarb to more niche produce like fennel, pea tendrils, and tillage radishes (often seen as “Japanese dicon” on fine dining menus). She also specializes in herbs, including multiple types of basil, thyme, and mint, and experiments with new, rarer plants, like currants (pink, black, and red), Egyptian onions, and tortoise shell spinach. Overlooking the ponds that supply water to the farm, an orchard of 35 trees yields fruit such as cherries, pears, and white peaches.

Alma takes exceptional care of her produce. In place of chemical fertilizers, she uses poultry manure and tills in compost from fallen leaves. Everything is pesticide free, making weeding a constant but worthwhile battle. “When you put chemicals on the soil, it kills certain beneficial bacteria and fungi that the plant really needs,” Alma emphasizes. Her natural, albeit more challenging approach “just produces a healthier plant — and healthier plants don’t attract bugs.”

Weather is an obvious, but substantial challenge. The day I visited was my idea of perfect weather, cloudless and 75 degrees, a rare treat in Illinois. “It’s hard work, but it’s a great day to be a farmer on days like this,” Alma joked. “But last summer was so terrible, you wonder if you should keep doing it … but then I’ll talk to Josh, Mike, and Thad and they tell me how much they love our stuff, and that really makes the difference.”

While Alma supplies produce to prestigious Chicago restaurants like The Girl and the Goat, Perennial Virant, and Green Zebra, her relationship with local restaurateur Thad Morrow and his executive chefs Michael Miller (Bacaro) and Josh Boyd (Carmon’s) is visible on many dishes, like shaved asparagus salads with soft-boiled egg and truffle vinaigrette, halibut with rhubarb, and scallops topped with her delicate pea tendrils. Beyond the exceptional quality, Alma goes so far as to grow specific plants for the local restaurants, including “specialty items, like red buds, spruce tips, crones, and edible violets,” said Chef Miller. “She’s always been really friendly to us and is always looking for other things she can do for us.”

To sample the produce of North Avoca Farm, you need not go to Chicago or the Fairbury Farmers Market. Simply stop in at Carmon’s Bistro or Bacaro restaurant.

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