Keeping Up With Thomas Eich From Farm To Market
"Kankakee Valley Homestead" is a family operated, and chemical-free farm located on Highway 104, north of Walkerton. It is operated by Thomas Eich who specializes in salad greens, and root crops but, grows seasonal crops with a focus on heirloom vegetables, and native fruits.
Livestock are an integral part of the farm. They breed Iowa Blue chickens, and consider themselves stewards of the breed. They also, raise pastured poultry, and ducks for meat, and eggs.
Thomas Eich walking around his Walkerton farm with "Little Buddy" on his shoulder.
Most people recognize the "Kankakee Valley Homestead" brand for their produce, and eggs found at Walkerton area farmer's markets, order on their website, or pick up at the farm.
(Go to: https://www.localharvest.org/kankakee-valley-homestead-M75675 )
Customers can contact them for farm tours and workshops.
"Brick" is an Iowa Blue breed.
I thought I would get in touch myself, to talk to Thomas who keeps interesting photos and videos of his progress at the homestead ranch on Facebook.
I asked Thomas how he became inspired to become a farmer? And what does that actually entail? "I think farmer probably best encapsulates the variety of different hats I have to wear. Although I’m primarily a market gardener on any given day I’m also a veterinarian, chicken farmer, butcher, delivery driver, sales clerk, mechanic, and anything else that needs done around the homestead."
"The inspiration to farm comes from two things: my experiences market gardening in California, and my passion for fresh, local, food."
"When I was in my 2nd to last year of college I spent a growing season in California working on a CCOF (California Certified Organic Farm). I learned a lot, while I was there but, mostly, what I saw was the positive impact from direct to consumer farming. There is an unrelentless insistence on quality from mentor farmer's Shu and Debby."
Thomas went to Macalester College, a Liberal Arts school in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The 2010 John Glenn High School graduate became a member of the "Scot" collegiate football, and track teams there. He went on, "I graduated with a degree that focused on Latin and Economics, so not normal farming training. The most I learned about gardening was spending a growing season under farmer, Shu, in California but, informally." Thomas is a 2014 Macalester alumni.
Next, Thomas Eich, with degree in hand, chose to return home. "I decided to start a truck farm in Walkerton. I wanted to expand beyond just market gardening and, into pastured poultry, and eggs."
"As we continued to grow I wanted us to continue to push the boundaries of what people were used with their food. While, we grow all the traditional crops. we also. grow ginger. We grow radishes all through the summer, and outdoor spinach even when the degrees are in the teens."
"We’ve had the first green beans at the farmers markets, and we had the first, locally grown corn in the area this year. It is at a price cheaper than the local supermarkets, and half the price of places like Sweet Corn Charlies.
I asked Thomas what are his favorite activities? "I’ve been gardening all my life. We raised chickens and had a large garden when I was a child but growing for consistent commercial demand is much different than a backyard garden."
"I’m still learning things my third year into it and, I’m sure I’ll still be learning after thirty years."
He reminisced about his favorite memories of Walkerton. "They are all about the summer, fireworks, parades, and all the events that bring the whole town together."
I asked Thomas to describe his business at the Walkerton Farmers Market at the New Kitchen Store and, what does he do during the off-season - wintertime? He replied, "from May to October I run five farmers markets a week and July and August are truly a sleepless scramble."
"I’m personally working over 100 hours a week at the moment and my crew of five helps when they can. We primarily sell vegetables but, we also sell fruits, eggs, poultry, and in the spring a variety of plants. We sell from strawberries, peppers, to flowers. We have an online farmers market that runs year round and we also wholesale microgreens, eggs, and meat in the winter."
"On top of all that I also work at Chipotle! I get health insurance working part time which is incredible and, was what really allowed me to make the jump to full time farming. During the season I work one or two days a week, more if I can afford the time that week, and in the off season I work full time at Chipotle and do wholesale deliveries on Thursdays."
Brandon at the Valparaiso Farmers Market. The Eich's are at the Walkerton Farmers Market at The New Kitchen Store parking lot on Thursdays from 4pm to 7pm.
Thomas said it's difficult to decide which is his favorite plant to grow? He said, "that’s so hard, there are so many things I love to grow and, for very different reasons. So, I’ll just list a few: I’ve always loved radishes: seven year old "Farmer Tom: type. Only, had to wait three weeks for them. There are so many different colors and varieties and they all grow so quickly."
"We grow about fifteen different types on the farm. I really enjoy Spinach when it germinates: it’s baby leaves look like nothing else in the garden. When it frosts the starches turn to sugar and there isn’t anything like December-harvested outdoor Spinach."
"Onions are a fun crop: they provide a long harvest range, have a variety of culinary uses, and tell you when they’re ready to be picked. Green onions start in April, cooking onions in June, and now by July we are harvesting the onion bulbs."
Thomas invited readers to look for the "Kankakee Valley Homestead" brand. Look at the Farmers Markets, events, or arrange a tour of the farm. "Everyone has a good chance to meet my family and friends when they come out to the markets! I’m usually in the field more than the markets but I couldn’t do all of this without their help."