In Her Boots Workshop

Small-Scale Market Farming in a Suburban Setting

Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017 


Radical Root Organic Farm
Libertyville, Ill.


Farmer Alison Parker welcomed participants to her family’s farm in Libertyville, Illinois. On this 10-acre certified organic farm, Alison and her husband, Alex Needham, raise diversified vegetables and eggs for a CSA, farmers market, and farm stand. Attendees learned how Alison creatively connects resources and learning opportunities to access the education and land the operation needs to grow into a successful farm business in a unique urban/suburban setting.



Radical Root Organic Farm:  5 Things I learned at the In Her Boots Workshop

By Sandra Kooper


All dreams start with a rumbling—a nagging that won’t let go. That nagging brought me to today’s In Her Boots Workshop at Radical Root Organic Farm in Libertyville, IL, where I listened to the unique stories and rumblings of the other women at the workshop. A majority of the attendees were at the beginning stages of planning their farm. Some spoke of returning to the farm life their families once had, but from which they had run. Others talked about surviving the corporate world long enough to be able to “break free” and live more simply on their farms. A few had been interning at working farms and were now pursuing their own farm dreams.

Some quick snapshot takeaways from the day:

  • Do your advance research on farming
  • Expand slowly so there is less chaos and more control over the direction the farm takes
  • Diversify to create multiple income streams. If something fails, another aspect of the farm can fill in the gap. For example: fruit and veggie shares, herbs, eggs, honey, farm stands, tours, farm stays, goat products (milk, cheese, soap), classes, etc.
  • Hoop houses give flexibility for season extension
  • Add trace minerals (from rock dust) to the soil, generally in early spring. Plants are better able to fight disease and pests. People get better nutrition from the produce.
  • Italian frying peppers are a great crop! Super sweet with a lot of fruit on each plant.
  • Stay away from horse manure that contains wood chips, which ties up nitrogen.
  • Use cover crops to protect the soil and add nutrients. Can lightly till under to kill the cover crop, then plant food crop about 2 weeks later.
  • Make connections with other women farmers
  • Have fun!

And some more reflections:


Radical Beginnings: Alison Parker, our hostess from Radical Root Organic Farm, shared her own journey to farming, which took her through jobs at several farms, to a series of incubator farms, and finally to a lease arrangement at her current location. Her advice for anyone who wants to pursue a farm dream is to “get your feet wet” and spend time interning to see a farm through a full season, do research on farming, go to workshops and gain knowledge. Alison feels organic farming is a great pursuit for the curious life-learner since there is always something new to learn and share.


An environmentalist at heart, Alison is passionate about growing good food in a way that not only protects the land, but also creates habitats and ecosystems that bring back and sustain the natural biodiversity of the area. To that end, Alison weaves permaculture practices throughout her farm.


View from the field: Our tour of the farm started with the walk-in coolbot cooler, which was built with the support of a grant from the Frontera Farmer Foundation, and the adjacent wash area with its stainless steel tables and great conventional clothes dryer that’s used to spin-dry greens.


Next, we visited the farm’s large strawberry patch. Next year, Alison plans to open it to the pubic for a U-pick experience, which she feels the local community will readily support. The flowers had been picked from this years plants early in the season so they could create a strong root system for better fruit production next year when the U-Pick starts.


From there we entered the perennial food forest, which Alison described as a “stack-and-pack” area, a special garden of beneficial relationships that mimics a natural forest’s architecture with the tallest plants/fruit trees, surrounded by more bushy medium height plants, which are then surrounded by low-lying plants. To illustrate one of these beneficial relationships, Alison pointed out the comfrey patch growing at the base of an apple tree. The comfrey acts like a nutrient factory. Its 6-foot-long roots harvest nutrients from deep in the soil, making comfrey leaves a fantastic natural source for nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.


As we walked through the growing fields Alison pointed areas of success along with crops that did not do well this season (mostly due to excessive rain and mid-July flooding). She plans to put native plants in low-lying areas as a buffer against future flooding. Some of the fall crops are already planted, including: endive, broccoli, baby lettuce, arugula and radish.

Animals on the Farm: Alison believes in Rudolph Steiner’s closed loop system, producing everything the farm needs from within the farm.  The animals at Radical Root Organic Farm are part of such a system. The farm is home to approximately 500 egg-laying chickens (Isa Browns) and two milk goats, one of which will be bred in the fall for spring kids and the start of the farm’s micro-dairy. Alison uses a rotation grazing system, which starts with the goats. They fertilize the land with their manure and generally leave an 8-inch browse. Then the chickens are moved to that area to complete the land prep with more manure and soil aeration from digging. The animal rotation happens throughout the farm every 3-6 days. It may seem like a lot of work, but this system does wonders for the fertility of the soil.


Got to have tools: Alison was joined by her husband Alex Needham in an informative demo of their most-loved tools. The farm has 5 tractors. Alex said each is set up for a specific job so it’s always ready when needed. Their most prized tractor is a solar charged battery operated Jang tractor with a 3-row seeder. What a time saver! Alison and Alex talked about methods for weeding, a constant chore, from stirrup hoes to flame throwers to hand-held wire weeders (very useful in the hoop houses). Next year they plan to have low-growing clover (dutch white clover) in the footpaths to cut down on the need for weeding.


Connections and key resources from Alison:


About “In Her Boots” format:

These daylong, on-farm workshops include a detailed farm tour, lunch and networking opportunities. With a focus on sharing experiences, stories and ideas, the In Her Boots format builds on the idea that women farmers learn best from each other. Bring your questions! Women just starting on their farm or food business dream are especially encouraged to attend.

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