GRAYSLAKE – The programs offered through Grayslake’s Liberty Prairie Foundation are just as varied as the colorful plants, vegetables and flowers blooming on the foundation’s land.
As diverse as they are, the programs all revolve around a single mission to inspire a love of growing.
And despite – and perhaps a bit because of – the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re thriving.
The pandemic’s impact has been felt in big and small ways, said Eric Carlberg, director of education for Liberty Prairie Foundation.
“Ever year, we have an organic plant sale. It really exploded on us the first year of COVID,” Carlberg said.
The amount of money raised jumped from about $20,000 to $34,000, but tapered off this year, with profits back down to $25,000. Still, Carlberg said, he’s seeing a growing interest in sustainable local food development, conservation and environmental education.
Among the foundation’s numerous on-site programs is Prairie Farm Corps, which provides a paid work experience for area high school students. The pandemic has limited opportunities for them to work in the kitchen learning to cook food fresh from the farm, but they continue to work in small groups on the land.
And using outdoor cooking stoves in an outdoor setting, they’re just starting to phase back in some of the cooking experiences, Carlberg said.
“I got plenty of students this year without any recruitment,” he said. “I think young people, at least the ones I see, are more attuned to things like climate change and worried about the future and worried about food and worried about plastics breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces and ending up in food. They have a whole set of concerns that are more up to date than mine.”
Headquartered at Prairie Crossing Farm, its 100-acre working organic farm, the Liberty Prairie Foundation not only operates on-site programs, it leases land to aspiring farmers through its Farm Business Development Center and recently welcomed a new tenant.
Skyfall Flowers began leasing an acre of land from the foundation in April and recently expanded its lease and added a couple of more acres. The business specializes in dahlias – all of them painting the land with a rainbow of colors – and other varieties of fresh flowers and sweat peas.
Tania Cubberly, who co-owns Skyfall with Adam Lemieux, first became involved with the Liberty Prairie Foundation about 16 years ago as part of the Farm Business Development Center. Returning to her hometown of Grayslake after farming in Maine for a while, she once again had her eye on the Lake County land.
“We said, ‘Yeah, we definitely want you here and you can serve as a mentor to others,’ " Carlberg said. “She’s very passionate and very good at what she does.”
Skyfall became a sort of “mentor farm” for the foundation. Prairie Wind Farm, a 40-acre organic farm owned and operated by the Miller family, remains at Prairie Crossing Farm for the long term, serving as the resident farm for the surrounding Prairie Crossing, a nationally recognized conservation community.
Along with selling flowers and dahlia tubers through its farm and area farmers markets, Skyfall looks to encourage future farmers and has plans to soon offer classes.
“We see some farmers going out of business and we want to be able to start offering the education and knowledge we have to any younger growers interested or thinking about going into growing,” Cubberly said.
A first-generation farmer, Cubberly said she knows how intimidating it can be looking at a field of grass, dirt or weeds with aspirations of turning it into a farm.
“Sometimes people can’t see it,” she said. “When you’ve been growing for a long time, you’re determined, and I’m determined.”
Cubberly’s vibrant dahlias aren’t the only burst of color on the foundation’s land.
In an effort to make the perfect tortilla, nearly 30 varieties of crossbred corn – including red, white and blue varieties – dot an area of the land.
The effort grew out of a book discussion group hosted by Carlberg. Inspired by “The Resilient Farmer,” members set their sights on corn.
“We have a lot of people that love tortillas and know how to make them from scratch,” he said.
The best corn for tortillas grows farther south, but the farmers are cross breeding corn to see what might work best in this area, he said.
“We have some amazing and beautiful corn growing out here,” he said.
That’s not all that’s new to the Liberty Prairie Foundation.
Carlberg has partnered with Community Youth Network in Grayslake to host what he’s calling “farm therapy.” Teenagers come to the farm and work with Carlberg in the fields or greenhouse after school. The program includes a sort of group therapy program where they all chat while doing farm tasks such as cleaning onions for market or shelling beans.
The tasks make the conversations come easier, Carlberg said.
“I think just being out in nature, hearing the crickets and doing work together and getting a little tired, but seeing that it amounts to something tangible, all of those things have a profound impact on people that may come from a place that’s more chaotic,” he said. “Just being outside itself is therapeutic. … Things can come out more naturally.”
The pilot program has six teens, with room to grow in the coming years, he said.
The foundation has launched the Northeast Illinois FarmLink program to connect, educate and support farmers and landowners. The website, atIllinoisfarmlink.org, gives farmland seekers and owners the chance to communicate with one another and access resources.
All this comes at a time when interest in growing seems to be thriving.
“With the pandemic, more people stayed home and as they stayed home, they started looking in their backyards and tinkering around in their gardens again,” Cubberly said. “They kind of got their hands dirty and started to grow things they’d never grown before.”