First Generation Farmer Supplies Produce to Chicago Chefs
Many of today’s farmers were raised on farms where it’s been the family business for decades and through generations. That wasn’t the case for Carl Smits, owner of Smits Farms in Chicago Heights. His father was a builder, but somehow Smits was always drawn to farm life. “I always liked tractors, farms and growing things, even as a little boy,” he said.
A high school job working for DeJong Bros. Farms in Lansing was a dream job for him, but he said he felt called to ministry and went to college as a Spanish major and theology minor. When he needed to take an elective during his junior year, a friend suggested a class in soil science. “It was by far my most enjoyable class,” said Smits.
At a World Mission job fair in college, he talked to the head of missions and expressed interest in serving in a Spanish speaking country where he could teach farming. Nothing like that existed. He wasn’t sure which direction he would go in.
Then in 1989 when visiting his girlfriend (now wife) on Christmas break, he walked in on a conversation between his father-in-law and two brothers-in-law about a new law going into effect July 1, 1990 banning yard waste from going into landfills.
“It was as if God was speaking directly to me and saying ‘This is my plan for you. Take yard waste, solve people’s problem and build up your soil.’ Now Smits had to figure out how to move forward with this plan when he had no land, no equipment and no yard waste.
He started writing letters - old school on a typewriter - to area communities to see if he could take their yard waste. He found one town who agreed. Then he noticed a piece of land for sale on Sauk Trail and contacted the owner. It had been in her family and been farmed since the 1800s, but they were ready to sell. She liked his plans when she heard them. He borrowed money and bought the farm and then a small John Deere that he still uses today. Within just a few months he was officially a farmer.
He started with growing mostly hard squash and tomatoes and reached out to a farmers’ market in Chicago who agreed to let him sell fresh herbs there. The farm since expanded to having several greenhouses and a garden center and to growing many additional vegetables on their 600 acres, selling their crops to farmers markets, wholesalers and customers at their two farmstands. They also now sell to some Chicago chefs directly through a Chicago market, so a lot of their produce is making their way onto the plates of those dining in some of Chicago’s top restaurants.
Soil quality is still a huge focus for him, and he enjoys educating others on the importance of adding organic matter to the soil and growing cover crops to prevent erosion for the good of the current crop and for future generations of farmers. Smits and his wife, Debbie (who is a bookkeeper at the farm) have six children. Their daughter, Kayla, works full time on the farm as the farm market manager and greenhouse manager. Their oldest son, Andrew, will be managing the grain division following his upcoming graduation from Purdue University and their second son, Matthew, is currently studying horticulture, also at Purdue University.
Smits Farm is located at 3437 Sauk Trail in Chicago Heights. For more information, visit SmitsFarms.com.
**Photo: The Smits Family - Carl and Debra Smits (center) flanked by their children and spouses.
Carrie Steinweg is a freelance writer, author, blogger and photographer living in Chicago’s south suburbs with her husband and five sons. Her work has appeared in dozens of print and online publications and she is the author of seven books. A passionate foodie, Carrie thoroughly enjoys traveling and visiting new restaurants and craft breweries, attending food festivals and trying out new recipes and kitchen gadgets. She writes about her food experiences at ChicagoFoodieSisters.com.