Living out the dream

Jen and Jeff Miller & Prairie Wind Family Farm

By Jill Stewart, Oak Park Farmers Market Commissioner

Living and working on a farm might be a dream for many. But with 80-hour weeks in the summer, it might also be just about the hardest job anyone could imagine. Regulars at the Oak Park Farmers Market since 2012, Jen and Jeff Miller dreamed about having a farm, raising their kids there, and growing food sustainably for folks in Illinois.

Getting started

The Millers are the owners and operators of Prairie Wind Family Farm  located in Prairie Crossing, a  conservation community in Grayslake, Ill. They began farming in 2005 by taking the Stateline Farm Beginnings course offered by the Angelic Organic Learning Center. The Learning Center helps would-be farmers get up to speed on the business side of farming, including holistic planning, investments and marketing, and “all the pieces that go into running a farm business,” according to Jen.

A gentleman from Liberty Prairie Foundation, which owns the Prairie Crossing farmland, told their class about an incubator program that offered the opportunity to rent land, cooler space, greenhouse space, and even tractor time to start a farm business without having a huge capital outlay right at the beginning.

In 2006 the Millers started their farm business at the incubator renting three-quarters of an acre and farming with some hand tools. With the help of supportive family members, they started “getting plants in the ground.” Their son, Owen, was a year old at the time, and Jen’s mother-in-law cared for him while the young couple experienced what it was like to farm for real.

Not long after that, they started selling what they had grown at farmers markets. They soon launched their own community supported agriculture [CSA] produce program , and later added pastured pork to their offerings. They also partnered with several other farms to bring in fresh fruit and other products to their CSA program. Flash forward 13 years, and today, they manage 40 acres with 15 acres of certified organic vegetables, partner with a farmers’ for fresh fruit and other farm products and raise 400 hundred chickens. They currently farm year-round and their goal is to continue to grow their winter production.

Jen notes that while the family loves the farm life, Mother Nature can be unpredictable. Patterns are different than in the past. Frost dates are different. The amount of fall moisture is harder to predict. “You are at the whim of something you cannot control,” she said. “It’s emotional, we lose crops, we have floods, it’s gut-wrenching when things are underwater” as they were earlier in the spring of 2019.

Though not raised on a farm himself, Jeff, a landscape architect, worked at farms during the summer before they moved to Prairie Crossing. Jen has a background in business and marketing. She does Prairie Wind’s website and writes the weekly farm newsletter. Recently, the Millers received a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant that enabled them to purchase a drone and an in-ground weather station to monitor changing weather patterns and to correlate ground data with aerial data. Their website features aerial footage of their farm taken from the drone.

In addition, the website newsletter has updates on crop conditions and recipes for the food the Millers grow. One Sunday per month in the summer, Prairie Wind Family Farm hosts Pizza/Taco Night at the Farm. City folks are encouraged to come by and get to know the farm and the farmers better.

And on Sunday afternoons from June until October, Prairie Wind volunteers harvest produce that would otherwise not be taken from the fields. Those “gleaned” fresh vegetables are delivered to local food pantries. Learn more about gleanings here.

Connected to Oak Park: A typical Saturday 

“We’ve been a part of Oak Park Farmers Market for a long time,” said Jen. “Before we were vendors at the market, Jeff would work at farmers’ market stands on Saturdays. We have friends in the area, we bought our first home and had our first baby in Oak Park.” The Millers take pride in being Illinois family farmers. “We love it when customers realize there are people in Illinois growing [food] for people who eat in Illinois.”

Jen sketched out her Oak Park Farmers Market day schedule:

3:30 a.m.             Get up, grab coffee

4                             Load the truck

4:45                        Set off

5:45                        Arrive, get in line with other farmers; sit in truck and prepare pricing signs

6:00                       Pull right in – “it’s like a little jigsaw puzzle, like a ballet of farm trucks “

7 a.m.                    Farmers Market opens

7a-1p                     Staff the booth

1 p.m.                   Pack-up the truck, and head home

2:30                       Back in Prairie Crossing: unload and sort

3:30                        Back in the house, take a shower, have a bite to eat with the kids [Owen, 14, Gavin, 11]

Visit Prairie Wind Family Farm’s booth at the Oak Park Farmers Market May-October.  

The Oak Park Farmers Market Commissioners thought it would be fun and interesting to get to know the farmers who come to Oak Park each Saturday to share their wares with customers. This blog tells the stories of our farmers; the first family we are profiling is the Miller family.

Next year – in 2020 – we’ll introduce you to one new farmer per month throughout our May-October season.