Lease impasse at root of organic farm closing
The hoop houses have been dismantled, crops harvested and hundreds of chickens sold as the last weekend of the six-year run of the Radical Root organic farm near Libertyville nears.
Since 2014, farmers Alison Parker and Alex Needham have worked the earth and pursued their passion for healthy eating and living on the historic Casey Farm on Milwaukee Avenue just south of Casey Road.
Just two more weekends remain. Saturday, Nov. 23, will be the finale for the business run by the husband-wife team.
The end comes as a disappointment for the property owner, licensee and the farmers themselves. Details remain guarded, but essentially it was a landlord/tenant impasse that led here.
"This year our lease was up for renewal but the terms ultimately didn't make economic sense for our business, nor did it make sense in terms of our desire for long-term land access and a secure and stable situation for our family," the couple posted on Facebook in late September.
"In the end, we made the difficult decision to move on and seek other opportunities."
The couple feels they did good work and had more to do. But now it will be done elsewhere.
"What we're trying to do is pause our farm business and save enough to start up again," Parker told a visitor on a chilly, gray day last week as the operation winds down.
"I don't want to speak negatively," she added. "That's not how we want to leave."
The couple started their careers to "make a difference in the food system" and have a positive impact in a community.
They married after apprenticeships in community-supported agriculture in Texas, Oregon and Wisconsin and then volunteered on organic farms in Costa Rica.
The name represented the couple's desire to go "beyond organic" in a multidimensional way. Healthy and strong roots, Parker explained, are needed for plants to draw nutrients.
Obsessed with soil health, they focused on growing nutrient-dense food and educating people about healthy living through tours, talks and workshops.
"One of our main missions here was to prove you could eat (locally grown food) in the upper Midwest all year round," Parker said.
Their offerings included an array of certified organic vegetables not available at the supermarket as well as fresh eggs from pasture-raised chickens.
But this has been what Parker described as a painful transition year.
The circumstances didn't arise because of a lack of interest, customers or commitment. Indeed, there about 5,000 on the mailing list and business for their heirloom fruits, vegetables and other products has grown each year, Parker said.
In June, customers seeking Radical Root's legendary organic strawberries were turned away because there was no more space to park.
Parker and Needham had signed a five-year lease to farm the land and live in the house whose original footprint dates to 1850.
The 13-acre Casey Farm was acquired in 2007 by Conserve Lake County. Liberty Prairie Foundation entered into a license agreement with the organization, enabling Parker and Needham to transition to the larger area. Conserve Lake County merged with Openlands, a regional nonprofit conservation organization, in 2018.
The initial five-year agreement with Radical Root ended in 2018, according to Vicky Ranney, chair of the Liberty Prairie Foundation. Negotiations for a five-year extension ensued but the farmers decided the arrangement wouldn't work for them, Ranney said.
"We are disappointed that Radical Root is leaving," she said. "They are a valuable community resource for many people in Lake County."
A transition agreement that ends Dec. 31 was reached.
"We did everything possible for them to stay," says Sarah Surroz, director of Lake County programs for Openlands. "We're very sad that they're leaving."
Openlands is committed to sustainable farming at Casey Farm and is working on an agreement with a new farmer, she added.
"People have told us how much better they feel," eating organic produce, Parker said. "It made it all worth it."