Despite being a lifelong city dweller, I have always loved experiencing the countryside. For me, there is something romantic about living in a house surrounded by family members and farm animals, tending to one’s own crops with an idyllic landscape permanently etched in the background. To date, staying at my great-aunt’s coconut farm 10 years ago still ranks as one of my most memorable summer vacations, and a place I ask to visit every time I return home.
As soon as I saw the annual “Day in the Country” food tour hosted by Chicago Gourmets, I jumped on the opportunity to learn about the agricultural industry in one of the U.S.’s major food production regions.
On the morning of July 14, I hopped into a van bright and early in anticipation of experiencing the culture of a family-owned farm in Northwest Indiana. After a two-hour drive across highways and farmland, we pulled into the driveway of the VanderMolen Blueberry Farm, where our hosts welcomed us with locally produced wine and a cheese tray from Fair Oaks Farms just down the road.
As we sampled deliciously rich gouda, muenster and butterkase cheeses while sipping on a light, sweet blueberry wine, the VanderMolens, along with their extended family members, chatted with us individually about their food and farming practices. This sense of welcome was evident throughout the entire visit, as the staff constantly prompted us to explore the site and eagerly took us on a tour of the blueberry farm and their sweet corn path just down the road while our lunch (below) was being roasted.
As we got a first-hand glimpse at this year’s crops, we learned from the farmers’ point of view how current laws are affecting their business. For example, one of the things they told us was that the child labor laws today are hurting farms reliant on family labor, because underage children are only allowed to work in the fields if they are immediate family members. Insight from the VanderMolens has since made me think: regulations like the child labor laws make sense to the general population, but do non-farmers understand the impact such laws may have on local agriculture?
Hungry from the tour, we returned back to the picnic bench to enjoy our farm feast courtesy of the VanderMolens and R.J., owner of Bub’s BBQ in Demotte, Indiana. Following a quick group prayer, we dug into the buffet line consisting of pulled pork, the season’s first picking of sweet corn and a blueberry rhubarb dessert, along with a selection of side dishes. R.J.’s pulled pork was flavorful and tender, and matched well with his homemade spicy barbecue sauce that provided the perfect blend of tanginess and heat. Rob’s fresh-picked corn indeed lived up to its “super sweet” name, and the tightly-packed kernels popped crisply inside the mouth. A sweet blueberry rhubarb crumble contained large berries mixed in with sweet blueberry sauce and whipped cream on top of a flaky pastry.
As if that wasn’t a good enough ending to the day, we then drove to the Belstra Milling Pork Farm to see how their pigs are bred on site. Impressively, this one farm alone provides 35,000 people with a quarter-pound high protein meal each day. We received the grand tour, and were able to see each stage of a pig’s life cycle, from breeding and pregnancy to birthing, nursing and eventually slaughter as 16-week-old, 220-pound pigs.
Beyond the good food and the insightful facts about modern farming, what stuck with me the most was how welcoming and friendly the VanderMolens were to all of their guests. At their family-owned farm, the VanderMolens treated us like family — sharing wine, food and most importantly, company.
Looking back on my experience, I realized that this atmosphere is why I love visiting the countryside. For me, it brings back fond memories of a week at my great-aunt’s farm, when all of my family members were gathered under a simple roof, spending time with one another without a single care in the world.