Doreen and Lloyd Nichols, Nichols Farm & Orchard. Photo credit: Rachel Hahs, 2020.
by Rachel Hahs, Village of Oak Park Farmers’ Market Commissioner
Touring the Nichols Farm & Orchard with Lloyd and Doreen Nichols, it quickly becomes apparent that meeting the farm and meeting the farmers is the same thing. Passionate about the food they grow and the place in which they grow it, the Nichols’ have grown their farm into a careful patchwork of fields, buildings and conservation areas that work within the landscape to produce the diverse and bountiful food they have been feeding Chicagoland residents for over 40 years.
Lloyd has been figuring out how to make things grow since his father gave him a patch of garden when he was 8. Fast forward more than 65 years and he and his wife, Doreen, run a 587-acre farm near Marengo, Illinois, that in normal times supplies 25 restaurants, 13 farmers’ markets and a CSA program, and hosts special events at the farm. New this year due to the pandemic, they have also created an online store that delivers direct to homes anywhere in the Chicagoland area. The diversity in their business reflects the Nichols’ willingness to take on new opportunities and know when to end others, which includes their shift to farming in the first place.
When the Nichols’ were young, farming was the last thing they saw themselves doing. Lloyd and Doreen both worked for the airline industry in Chicago, and when they moved to Marengo to give Lloyd a bit more space for his gardening hobby, feeding others was not part of the plan.
However, when his four-acre “garden” consisting of a wide diversity of produce, including several apple trees, started producing much more than family and friends could eat, a friend offered to take his produce to a farmer’s market. Realizing he could make extra cash, the Nichols started attending farmers markets in 1978, and committed to additional markets in 1979.
“The two of us did it all: the animals in the barn, washing produce in the kitchen because there was nowhere else to wash it and packing it all up for the markets,” said Lloyd.
As they worked long hours in two jobs – airlines during the week and farmers markets on the weekends – the airline industry was changing. Soon, the Nichols faced the prospect of moving to St. Louis or choosing a different path. They chose the farm.
The farm has grown organically as the Nichols’ have grown their business, with Lloyd overseeing the farming and Doreen running the business aspects of the farm. As they joined more farmers markets, including the Oak Park Farmers’ Market in 1982, they reinvested profits back into the business and purchased additional parcels of land in the area – sometimes adjacent, sometimes not. They also jumped at the chance brought about by Abby Mandel of the Green City Market to supply local chefs with sustainable produce. Once their oldest son decided to deliver direct to restaurants, the Nichols’ restaurant supply operation exploded and became 40 to 50 percent of their business.
“The farm bought the farm,” Lloyd said.
The result is a 587-acre certified sustainable farm (of which approximately 100 acres is conservation land) that produces over 1,000 varieties of fruits and vegetables in any one year, including 200 varieties of heirloom apples. The farm supports both the Nichols and the families of their three sons, including six grandchildren, all of whom are involved in the family business. They employ 40 people, many year-round, and strive to give their employees a good living. The Nichols’ attribute their success to “working ridiculously hard, getting lucky, and being in the right place at the right time.”
But the farm is far more than the impressive diversity of food grown there and the relatively large operation of fields, greenhouses, packing facilities and vehicles. It is the painstaking way in which the Nichols have incorporated small boulders from the fields into the walls of their deck, their flower beds, and the entrance to the farm. It’s the way in which they saved – and sell the fruit of – the four wild plum trees that reach out to welcome you as you enter the farm. It’s the way in which an unproductive field is turned into hardwood forest and a leftover berm from an unfinished railroad is cleared over time of invasives and planted with oaks. It’s the way Lloyd laughs as dandelion seeds form a blizzard around you as you drive between fields on your tour of the farm in May. It’s the way in which Lloyd clearly respects the gnarled apple trees that have traveled the journey with them to the present.
This year Lloyd’s biggest unknown is his apple trees – more specifically how much fruit they will bear. Last year all his worker honeybees died, so this year he is seeing how much pollination will take place relying on wild pollinators. His approach to this challenge seems to be his approach to many challenges: try something new, and if it works, great, and if not, move on to a different plan.
The pandemic this spring has been hard for everyone, including farmers like the Nichols. For the Nichols family, this has meant again being flexible and rethinking their business as the restaurant business disappeared in March and farmers markets were uncertain. They opened a direct to consumer online store, and their CSA shares this year have expanded considerably. They have been fortunate not to have any of their staff get sick, and are looking forward to getting back to farmers markets.
Lloyd and Doreen love the seclusion and peace of their beautiful home on land they have thoughtfully nurtured for decades. It’s diverse beauty is a direct result of their long-time commitment to growing high quality produce in a way that nurtures all of us.
“Forty-three years and still doing it,” said Lloyd. “We just can’t help ourselves.”