Farmer Spotlight: River Valley Ranch
One of the market's very first vendors!
Imagine the summer of 1999 in the alley next to the iconic Chicago Theater, now picture a handful of farmers selling their produce. It isn’t street theater your visualizing, it is the very first Green City Market. “A small group of us, Lou and Bill Polley from Gourmet Gardens, Lloyd and Doreen Nichols from Nichols Farm, Giles, the cheese vendor, Klug, a few other folks, hanging in the alley on Friday mornings. Waiting for customers to stumble into the alley. We mugged them with our produce,” said Eric Rose from River Valley Ranch.
The early days were challenging, Eric remembers Green City Market founder Abby Mandel fondly. “Abby really held the market together that first year, dealing with a bunch of grumpy farmers, she was a dynamo really.” Eric says during the first year he didn’t have the staff to work the market and Abby recruited chef and later board member, Portia Belloc to work for River Valley. “It was so slow for us. She bought my crop of mushrooms more than once during the season to help us out and keep us coming back, “ said Eric.
Two decades ago things were much different for Eric and his team.“Back then it was a pretty small operation. Me and couple other dedicated folks. Perpetual motion for me during the Summer market season. Couple of rickety vehicles, roll of duct tape and vise grips to keep things together. River Valley has a great team these days,” says Eric. We agree! And, just so you know, he still carries the duct tape and vise grips.
As GCM grew, so did River Valley. On a typical day during peak season these days Eric tells us the pace is fast and furious. “Stand back, you might get run over... we are busy. During a typical week, we have 50 people on payroll, between the farm store, mushroom farm, the garden, our kitchen, retail market and restaurant in Lincoln square. We have a crew on the move, at upwards of 30 farmers markets per week, manage wholesale for a few distributors, a number of restaurants and retail outlets that sell our fresh and processed foods.”
During the winter season things slow down a bit but they still plant a crop of mushrooms weekly giving them about 14,000 pounds of mushrooms per week, which you have the chance to purchase all winter long at our indoor market.
Unlike most vegetable farms a mushroom farm is not dependent on sunshine they are grown indoors. “Mushrooms are grown on specially prepared, pasteurized compost, (40 tons per week at River valley). After 3 weeks of preparation, compost is planted with mushroom spawn, and incubated for another 30 days, at which time harvest commences. We hand harvest for two weeks and then terminate the crop. In any given week we have 10 crops in succession planting, one week apart in age, to give us a continuous supply,” said Eric.
Green City Market and other markets have helped Eric's business grow and expand over the years. “Markets are a big piece of our business. Both from a sales and marketing view. We have developed a number of products as a result of our opportunity to test an idea or product in the markets. And we have made many friends who support us through the markets. They represent about a third of our annual sales.”
So what’s next for River Valley Ranch. Eric tells us the 2019 season has them completing a mushroom farm expansion, increasing their mushroom production and planting a couple thousand hemp plants, growing an array of tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, garlic, onions, basil.
We had to ask what Eric’s favorite dish to make with his products. “A simple saute of a medley of mushrooms cooked in butter, shallots and garlic over pasta or over a baked potato in winter. Summer, a marinated grilled portobello with roasted red peppers. Shiitake or maitake omelette would be the third favorite. Sounds delicious to us!
Eric says market goers should know they are appreciated. “My farm would likely not exist without the ongoing support of the farmers market customers. We are grateful. We strive to produce great products, that are nutritious and delicious, it feels good to have the opportunity, to be supported in our efforts through farmers markets.”
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