WOODSTOCK, Ill. — A nine-acre patch of meadow off Dean Street near the headwaters of the Kishwaukee River, just south of downtown Woodstock, is the site of a new Forest Farm initiative by The Land Conservancy of McHenry County.
It doesn’t look like much now, but with new rounds of cultivation in June and July, the conservancy is hoping the farm, named Apple Creek for the subdivision just south of the site, becomes a “demonstration of what it is possible to grow in McHenry County for both health and profit,” said Linda Balek, The Land Conservancy’s farm program manager.
“We believe agriculture should work in harmony with the land,” Balek said. “We’re coming to the end of the era of monoculture farming. We need to look at different ways of growing. Different crops that we can use to feed the community. It’s an adventure.”
Right now the forest farm does not even have an access path, but eventually the site will include trees — native species such as elderberry and chestnut — alternating with perennial food crops in a tight patchwork of plantings that maximize the number of crops that can be harvested.
The conservancy is hoping to use the site as a demonstration of different ways of farming, Balek said.
Another benefit of forest farms over a typical monoculture, Balek said, was the abundance of wildlife could thrive on the site.
Apple Creek already has a resident beaver along the Kishwaukee, Balek said, and another volunteer, Linda Gurgone, was keeping track of butterflies and other insects and birds they found at the site at iNaturalist.
“There’s quite a bit of wildlife here,” Gurgone said. “We’re going to share, us and the animals.”
The ability for wildlife to coexist even as the food forest grows is among ways the project differs from smaller-scale community gardens, Balek and Gurgone said.
Plans for the forest farm at Apple Creek date back to roughly one year ago, Balek said, when she was trying to figure out what to do with the field, which is owned by The Land Conservancy.
The Land Conservancy received assistance from the Savanna Institute, a Wisconsin-based organization that promotes agroforestry in the midwest and has five demonstration farms in Wisconsin and Illinois.
Representatives from the institute came to Apple Creek in June to offer technical assistance on how to move forward with the project at Apple Creek, Savanna Communications Manager Renee Gasch said.
“Working in McHenry County is very important because of its proximity to the Great Lakes,” Gasch said. “It’s a very important watershed region.”
While most of the Savanna Institute’s work has been to promote agroforestry in very rural areas, Gasch said, McHenry and Lake counties represented a new context for forest farms in a more suburban setting.
The Savanna Institute also assisted with another Chicago-area forest farm at Prairie Crossings in Grayslake, Gasch said.
Elderberries, gooseberries and pawpaw were planted last October, Balek said. The latest round of planting, which began in late April, included soybeans.
In June and July, volunteers have come out to the site to do extensive weeding and collect cuttings of the pawpaw and elderberries for propagation and planting in fall 2022. Those latter crops will replace the soybeans once they are harvested.
Growing native species perennials will serve a number of benefits, Balek said, including: they can be grown year-round, they are better for preserving the air and soil, as they don’t require heavy pesticide or fertilizers to grow; and the crops often have multiple uses.
Elderberries, for example, can be turned into a syrup and may provide an additional source of income for the conservancy at farmers markets, Balek said.
The site also could serve as a model for effective stormwater management, Balek said.
The crop rows are designed in a pattern designed to match the slope of the land and to “catch” stormwater when it rains. In that way, the forest farm is scaling up similar community projects, such as a rain garden being planted in Crystal Lake.
There also is an educational component, Balek added. The forest farm in Woodstock is less than a mile away from Creekside Middle School and Prairiewood Elementary School, part of Woodstock Community School District 200.
At least one teacher, Jessica Mora of Creekside, has visited the site.
Mora, who teaches seventh grade life science, said district leadership had discussed having teachers come out with students in the fall to visit the forest farm as an outdoor classroom space.
“We like this project because our schoolkids can come and see plants out here instead of in the classroom,” Mora said. “We learn about plants all year, so kids should find this interesting.”
Two of the interns with The Land Conservancy, Breanna Christensen and Amelia Swiecki, said they found the educational component of the site fascinating and appreciated the model the food forest could serve for the McHenry County community overall.
“I really like the ethics involved with this,” Christensen said. “Working with the land rather than against it, we’ve been talking (at the conservancy) about trying not to use chemicals in farming. It’s been great learning about all of this.”
Swiecki, who gardens with her mom and hopes to help run a community-supported agriculture site one day, noted that in most farms, “nobody gets to see what goes on behind the scenes,” in contrast to a more accessible farming project like Apple Creek.
In addition to the volunteer base, Balek said the conservancy is ready for community members to take part in growing crops that interest them on select plots within the forest farm.
“It won’t just be us doing the planting,” Balek said. “We want to do something different here.”
Others Balek credited as partnering with the project include Judy Speer of Harvard-based Small Waters Education NFP and Woodstock residents Caron Wenzel and Gurgone, who are members of the McHenry-Lake County Permaculture Group.
Future tree crops under consideration for the food forest include currants, serviceberries, aronia berries, honeyberries, hazelnuts, Asian pear and chestnuts, according to the conservancy’s website.
In late summer or early fall, volunteers will grow more trees and shrubs to serve as a boundary line for the site, and a native grass will be planted as a cover crop over the entire site to help prevent weeds from growing and enrich the soil, Balek said.
“We have a large area to play around with,” she said.