How I became the smallest farmer in the Midwest

A Chicago gardener discovers that the 'mistakes' in his vegetable garden are easily sold at a neighborhood market, making him arguably the smallest farmer in the Midwest.

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Gardeners are widely known as generous folks, eagerly giving away home-grown flowers and food to anyone who asks. The late-summer surfeit of produce often forces us to be extra-generous.

But this year, I took the exchange a step further. This year, I sold a good part of my harvest, making me arguably the smallest farmer in Midwest.

Unexpected harvests

Like any less-than-expert gardener, my vegetable patch generally turns out about 50 percent different than I planned.

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This year, for instance, I wanted to try companion planting, so I sowed zinnias with my baby broccoli. An early heat wave murdered the broccoli, leaving the flowers to take over an entire bed. I now have enough to cover a Rose Bowl float.

The same mad, Murphy-esque method left me with an enormous sage plant but no potatoes to season with the herb; hundreds of grape tomatoes but only a handful of slicing ones; and an equal number of delicious but pea-sized heirloom cucumbers.

You could say I specialize in hard-to-eat crops.

Found: a solution

To buy all the ingredients I had failed to grow, I headed to a storefront grocery in my Chicago neighborhood, a friendly shop called Open Produce. It’s a small operation run by young people that stocks a little bit of everything, including lots of local produce.

One day, bummed out by my inability to grow anything approaching a staple, I propositioned the store manager: "Would you like some flowers? For the store, I mean?" Darned if the answer wasn’t yes, with $5 of store credit as my reward.

Emboldened, I offered again and again. "Would you like some sage? Tomatoes?" I got only a few bucks per sale, but it felt like big sums because I had converted my produce into a few dollars.

Moreover, to learn that someone would buy my mistakes made me wonder what other oddly desirable things I could grow. Super-hot peppers? Decorative gourds? Pink peppercorns?

The booming interest in heirloom edibles has meant that seed houses are selling some truly obscure quasi-useful varieties that became rare for a reason. Invariably, they end up in my small plot.

I just planted marshmallow and licorice. Place your orders now.

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Christopher Weber is a journalist and work-at-home dad in Chicago. He has written about gardening for the Chicago Tribune and taught it at a local school. His current favorite vegetable to grow is Brussels sprouts. You can find more information about him, including articles and blogs, at christopherweber.org. To read more by Christopher at Diggin' It, click here.

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