Summer is magical for many reasons, but the sweet taste of tender, perfectly ripened tomatoes, so juicy they’ll ruin your shirt, tops my personal list. You know what I’m talking about. While the grocery store houses watery, dense, flavorless posers, the real deal will soon be located right at the Urbana farmer’s market, Market at the Square, under the tent marked Blue Moon Farm.
Located just 10 or 15 minutes north of town (20 minutes if you get lost on charmingly convoluted country roads, like me), Blue Moon has been churning out 20 acres of certified organic produce since 1997. The pristine, chemical-free techniques come natural to owner Jon Cherniss, who has “always farmed organically” since he first “grabbed a summer job on an organic farm.” Farming since 1988, Jon cultivated organic crops in Ohio and Georgia before settling here in Illinois with his wife, a professor in soil science.
Despite his many years of experience, organic farming has hardly become easy or boring. About 50% of the farm’s work is devoted to planting cover crops, which revitalize the fields for next season’s produce. Jon showed me plots of Sudan grass, planted for the sole purpose of giving nutrients back to the soil and fighting the battle against weeds. Rather than dousing his livelihood in pesticides and weed killers, he battles the elements naturally.
On that note, nature hardly makes Jon’s job any easier. Everything from insects to rabbits and raccoons will ravage unattended plants. His only organic defense against cucumber beetles are screened grow houses, which allow air in but keep bugs out. Unfortunately for the tomato crop, raccoons are not so easily defeated. The clever animals weasel their way into the grow houses under cover of darkness as easily as they do your garbage can. Jon showed me a row of tomatoes, each one with a single, vindictive bite taken out of it. “It might be time for me to spend a night out here,” he half-joked.
Though difficult, Jon’s passion for his work is obvious. While he describes farming as “mostly a shotgun approach” involving trial and error to “see what sticks” with shoppers at the Urbana farmers’ market, he takes great care in choosing plant varieties which “balance taste vs. appearance.”
For instance, finding a good tomato variety is easier said than done. Supermarkets and mainstream farmers want hard tomatoes that will stand up to weeks in warehouses and transport before hitting store shelves — the posers I mentioned above. Unlike those flavorless rocks, Jon prefers to grow Buffalo tomatoes. They are bright red, tender, juicy, and delicious. Their seeds are also now impossible to find, and this will be the last crop due to lack of demand. “We still haven’t found anything comparable,” Jon said. “If I can’t grow a good tasting tomato, it’s really hard on me.” Still, he is experimenting with varieties and hybrids to find the perfect replacement. The determination in his eyes told me he would.
Though the tomatoes are delicious, the huge variety of greens and herbs — arugula, collards, chard, garlic greens, tatsoi, spinach, head lettuce, salad mix, basil, cilantro, and parsley — is another point of pride for the farm. Restaurants like Milo’s, Escobar’s, Carmon’s Bistro, and the Great Impasta proudly use Blue Moon produce. The brand regularly appears on Market Monday tasting lineups at Bacaro as well as on the back of the Big Grove Tavern Menu. Though the BBQ gets the limelight at Black Dog Smoke & Ale House, I’m a huge fan of their salad: Blue Moon greens topped with tomato, red onion, and a homemade dressing of choice, like a tangy ranch or Creole vinaigrette.
However, only about 30% of Blue Moon’s harvest goes to area restaurants. Urbana farmers’ market customers eat up the bulk of the produce as well as the ready-to-transplant herbs available every Saturday morning. Outside of tomato season, Blue Moon is stocking shoppers’ kitchens with vegetables like asparagus, beets, broccoli, green onions, radishes, turnips, and snap peas in addition to all of their greens and herbs.
Tomato season is imminent, people. Check out Blue Moon Farm at the Urbana farmer’s market. Or, if you’re too “tired” to get up that early Saturday morning, hit up one of the many local establishments carrying their produce.