Counting our parents and children, we are now the 3rd, 4th, and 5th generations to be farming sustainably in Central Illinois. These three siblings from the 4th generation are engaged in growing food for their families and communities:
Henry grows vegetables on his extremely biodiverse (over 650 varieties) farm near Congerville. Here you see him in his hoophouse.
Teresa grows fruits and herbs on her farms in Eureka and near Congerville, devoting 2 acres to certified organic aronia (black chokeberry), and marketing products made from what she grows under the Sunny Lane brand, including aronia jam, jelly, tea, frozen berries and juice (sold here online) and herbal teas
Jill Brockman Cummings
Jill grows fruit, raises animals, and makes goat milk soap on her family's Red Barn Farm, the original Brockman family farm near Danforth, now certified organic. Red Barn Farm has an organic orchard, many animals, and its signature product is pure and gentle goat's milk soap, handmade on the farm with all organic ingredients.
Some families play music and sing (we howl like wolves); some families do well in business (we try our best); and some families write. Writing comes naturally to many of the Brockman clan, and so that’s what some of us do when we’re not outside growing things.
Photo © Alexandra Sing
From left to right:
Me, Terra. I've made my life's work writing and speaking about many aspects of sustainable farming. I also founded and continue to serve The Land Connection, a non-profit organization focused on training farmers, preserving farmland for sustainable farming, matching farmers with land, and empowering consumers looking for good food in our region.
Zoe, Henry and Hiroko's daughter, has been writing for most of her life, and began contributing to the weekly Food & Farm Notes when she was in junior high. She collected some of her farm writings from the summer before she went to college in a chapbook, “The Happiness of Dirt,” and is currently pursuing a degree in creative writing at Northwestern University
As a contributor to the weekly Food & Farm Notes, Teresa has written about everything from the dastardly spotted wing drosophila, to capturing a swarm of honey bees, to all the different ways you can enjoy aronia berries, and the 70-some other fruits she grows. When she's not farming or writing, you will find her making beautiful quilts.
Henry writes on topics dear to him like how and why organic farming works, and practical and philosophical musings on the solstices, equinoxes, and seasons of life. He also writes children’s stories, which he’ll get published one of these days when his body won’t let him farm anymore. .
Herman, our father and retired professor of genetics, writes about many topics, usually incorporating science, natural history, and agriculture. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the building of his family’s barn, he published “A Celebration of Family Farming,” which features some of his essays about the Brockman Centennial Farm, and the past, present and future of family farming. Herman is currently working on a series of essays, “Trees I have Known.”
My grandparents, Herman Brockman and Maria Zachgo-Brockman, bought the farm (then 160 acres), the house (only the small south section existed then), and farm buildings in 1898. My father, Fred Brockman, was born here in 1905. In 1912, Herman Brockman had the big red barn, with the then unheard-of concrete floor, built. From this and other evidence we have, I judge him to have been an industrious and progressive farmer. He died in 1917, when my father was only 12, suddenly and painfully, perhaps of a ruptured appendix. Dad’s mother died five years later.
The farm was rented until Dad and Mother (Henrietta Zeedyk-Brockman), who were married in 1927, started farming in 1930—just in time for the real tough times of the Great Depression and the dust-bowl drought. Dad was a man of few words, but Mother told me how Dad worked to build up the soil fertility. He pitched manure into a hayrack (they couldn’t afford to buy a manure spreader), and then pitched it off “at the back 40.” He raised sweet clover and plowed it under to feed the soil. He grew timothy for the horses and red clover for the cows and sheep.
In retrospect, Dad, and his father before him, were organic farmers, as were all farmers at that time. Dad, and especially Mother, never embraced enthusiastically the new ways of farming that came to be after World War II. Mainly, they continued to rely on a crop rotation that included legumes for pasture and hay, and lots of manure from the horses (in the early years), cows, sheep, hogs, and chickens. They also applied limestone, rock phosphate, and potash as needed. It was highly diversified and sustainable farming, with cream and eggs sent to Chicago by train.
Unfortunately, Dad had to stop doing the fieldwork and having farm animals after he crushed his leg while harvesting corn in 1963. He was in the hospital for seven months, and didn’t get rid of the bone infection for another three years after that. But Mother and Dad continued to live on the farm, to act as landlords, to have enough hens for their own eggs, and to grow their own vegetables and fruit for about another 30 years.
During those decades when Mother and Dad rented the farm, the tenants insisted on mainly a corn-soybean rotation and high inputs of commercial fertilizers and pesticides. The folks were never happy with that kind of farming. Mother often railed against “all of those darn chemicals.”
I know that Mother and Dad, and my grandparents, would be very happy to know that 4th and 5th generations now live in the farm house, that the barn and chicken shed are once again a home for farm animals, and that Harold and Ross Wilken are farming their beloved land organically – for the benefit of the environment and for the future of all of us."
“I became a farmer,” Henry states, “because it was the only thing that made sense. I feed my family and other families without hurting the environment; I grow delicious and healthy food for people, and my kids know that when it’s hot, you sweat and when it rains, you get wet.”
After many years living in other cultures (Israel, Japan, Nepal, and Japan again), Henry realized that what was important was a simple, honest living that respected the earth and contributed to the health and well-being of others, “be they humans or rabbits, earthworms or soil microbes, oak trees or algae.”
Henry made the decision to make organic farming his life’s work while still in Japan. That’s where he met his wife, Hiroko, where they were married, and where, in 1990, their first child was born.
When they came back to the U.S. they lived for a year in New York State where they apprenticed with John Gorzynski, who grows organic vegetables for New York City’s flagship Green Market in Union Square.
Henry was uncertain as to where his farming future would be. Then one day, on a trip to visit the family back in Congerville, Henry had an epiphany. He stuck a shovel into the earth, just as he had been doing in New York, and turned it over. For a long moment, he stared at the incredibly rich, black, loamy earth. That was it. He knew that this was where he had to be; this was the land he would farm.
And that’s what Henry has been doing since 1993, building the soil, planting hundreds of kinds of vegetables, and enriching the lives of every person who eats them.
Along the way he has spoken at many winter farming conferences, and won many awards, including the R.J. Vollmer Sustainable Agriculture Award (see p. 25 in the linked file) and the prestigious USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Patrick Madden Award.
From the time she was a child, Teresa had the greenest thumb in the Brockman family. The plants in her bedroom would thrive while the same plants in the rest of the house would wither and die. And she was the fondest of our elderly neighbor Miss Kraft, who had a fabulous formal garden, including a lily pond, as well as a huge vegetable garden and fruit orchard. When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Teresa always answered, “a Miss Kraft.”
Like Henry, Teresa lived abroad for many years, starting with a year in the Philippines when she was in high school, and ending up in Yokohama, Japan a decade later. When she was in the Philippines, she learned Ilongo, including the word for the dark crud that you scrape off of your sweaty skin after you’ve been working in the dirt. At that point, no one knew just how intimate Teresa would become with sweat and dirt!
When Teresa started her farm in the spring of 2001, her goal was to sustainably grow a little bit of every type of fruit that our Zone 5 climate could support. That led to her very diverse farm with many varieties of fruit, then to herbs, and eventually spring plant starts.
It also led her to the native American plant, Aronia melanocarpa, which produces berries with extremely high levels of antioxidants, and can be used in juices, jams, muffins, oatmeal, and smoothies. Even through the plant (known commonly as black chokeberry) is native to North America, almost no one was growing it in the U.S. But her Polish and Russian customers knew a lot about aronia and loved it. When one of them visited Poland, she brought back a bottle of aronia juice for Teresa. One swig, and she was hooked, and in 2006 decided to devote two acres to it.
In 2007,Teresa went on a research trip to Poland, where there are large aronia farms, and where many different aronia products are found in every grocery store. She returned to Illinois, expanded her aronia production, and started her own aronia product lines.
”One reason I always wanted an orchard,” Teresa muses, “is for it to be here after I die. Somehow it will let me live for at least another generation when my grandchildren tell their children that Great Grandma Teresa planted the tree that the apple they are eating came from. It is a comfort.”
Jill Brockman Cummings
After many years teaching school in Albuquerque, Jill and her husband Will and their two small girls moved to Illinois, back to the family farm that our great-grandparents settled on in 1898. At that time, the farm (like all farms) was biodiverse and organic. Over the next century it (like most Illinois farms) gradually became a chemically mono-cropped farm that fed animals, exports, and gasoline engines more than it fed the community.
Once Jill and her family moved there, she realized that dangerous cocktails of agricultural chemicals drifted into the farmhouse all the time. Whenever the spray rigs would approach, she’d rush to shut all the windows and then run outside to get the clothes hanging on the line. Often she’d have to wash them again and hang them out later, hoping the chemicals would not volatize and again drift on the clothing that would be in intimate contact with her babies’ skin.
Finally she laid down an ultimatum: the farm would have to transition to organic production or she’d have to leave. And so, after offering the long-time tenant the opportunity to use organic practices, we found a new tenant. Harold Wilken and his son Ross transitioned the farm to certified organic production and since then, they have transitioned over 1,000 acres in Iroquois County to organic production.
In the late 1990’s, the family planted 100 apple and pear trees northwest of the house, in what was the pear orchard for many decades before the farm transitioned to chemical monocrop agriculture in the 1960s. Will and Jill keep bees to pollinate the fruit, and they have a large vegetable and fruit garden for their family.
Their four girls are all involved in 4-H, and those projects have led to a menagerie: goats (meat and dairy), chickens, ducks, guinea fowl, rabbits, and dogs. The huge hayloft of the hip-roofed barn that our great-grandfather built in 1912 is now used to store organic hay and straw, while the goats, four friendly farm cats, and a horse named Cowboy call the lower level home
I grew up in rural Central Illinois and couldn’t wait to get away. In 1977, I bought a 1969 Chevy Nova for $200 and lit out for the territories. I attended the University of Oregon and then the University of California at Berkeley before returning home and receiving an B.S. and M.A. in English Literature from Illinois State University.
I then worked as a teacher, writer, and editor in Japan for five years, and as a writer and editor in New York City for the next 10 years. During those years, I traveled extensively, from Nepal to Eritrea to Morocco to the Baltics. While visiting “third world” countries, I often ate better foods than in the U.S. There may not have been a lot, but it was fresh, local, unprocessed, delicious and nutritious.
As I gradually returned to my roots as the 4th of 5 generations of a central Illinois farm family, I realized that the best food in the world could and should be grown in our own backyards and farms. To that end, I founded The Land Connection in 2001 — an educational nonprofit dedicated to preserving farmland, training new farmers, and connecting consumers with local producers.
When I’m not doing various nonprofit activities, I write about food and farm issues. My most recent book is The Seasons on Henry’s Farm: A Year of Food and Life on a Sustainable Farm, one of three finalists for the 2010 James Beard Award in the writing and literature category.
Through all of my writing, speaking, and advocacy, I strive to further The Land Connection’s vision of many farmers on the land, contributing to healthy farmland, healthy foods, and healthy communities.
"I have had many strong environmental influences, but all of my genome came, of course, from my father and mother, German and Dutch gene pools, respectively. From them I received my great love of nature, especially of the farm – of the soil and all that it nurtures. They seemed to have known instinctively that which I later learned from Aldo Leopold in his A Sand County Almanac, which is his famous ‘land ethic.’ which, as he defines it, "simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land."
Herman Brockman was born in 1934 in the same room of the same farmhouse where his own father Fred had been born. Although he loved the farm life, he was also intelligent and studious, and his family and teacher encouraged him to go to college and get “a good job.” And so Herman got his PhD and taught genetics at Illinois State University for 35 years. When he retired, he started working on Henry’s Farm, and continues to do so—proving that you can take the boy off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.
When Jill moved back to the family farm, Herman enlisted neighbors Harold and Ross Wilken to transition the century-old farm to certified organic production. Now that the farm is no longer doused in chemicals, Herman is proud that Leopold’s land ethic has taken root.
Marlene Castiglia was born on the south side of Chicago to a family of immigrants from Calabria in southern Italy. She was a serious student, and the only one of her siblings to go to college. It was in a biology class at Blackburn College, where the teacher had the students sit alphabetically, that Brockman sat next to Castiglia, and the beginning of another clan began.
Herman and Marlene were married in 1956, as Marlene was finishing her nursing degree at Wesley Memorial (now Northwestern Hospital) in Chicago, and Herman was finishing his masters degree at Northwestern University.
Their first children, Fred and Terra, were born in Talahassee, Florida where Herman went to do his PhD. Beth and Teresa were born in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where Herman was doing his post-doctoral research. And Henry and Jill were born in Normal, Illinois, where the family moved for Herman’s job at Illinois State University.
Although Marlene’s parents and all of her relatives had been peasant farmers in Calabria, “with a smidgeon of land for chickens and a garden, and maybe a goat or a sheep,” this was not what Marlene anticipated for her future. Yet when Henry made his decision to return home and raise vegetables for a living, Marlene was on the front lines, working longer and harder than anyone (except Henry, of course). And when Henry had to quickly form a CSA