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Ask A Farmer: Chicago Summer Produce Guide

By Elizabeth SanFilippo

Farming is a Nichols family tradition, as Todd's dad started the farm in 1978 with only 10 acres. Today, the farm boasts 435 acres, with 330 under vegetable and fruit cultivation. While based west of Chicago in Marengo, IL, the Nichols family can be found at a number of farmers' markets throughout the city every day of the week during the season (typically May through October), hawking their delicious wares.

Nichols Farm

Todd Nichols
Nichols Farm & Orchard
2602 Hawthorn Road
Marengo, IL 60152
(815) 568-6782

Growing up on the farm and going to farmers' markets, Todd has always had an affinity for the life. "What I love about being a farmer is the ever-changing environment, working outdoors, dealing with the public and generally being revered for what we do. Oh and driving tractors is fun too." He studied horticulture at Iowa State, and today works as a part of the family operation. He is married and has three children.

Buy Local

The water table is back up this year, and so last year's drought appears to be over, according to Todd Nichols. As such, the local crop is going to be similar to past years. "Anything that can be grown locally should be exceptional," Todd says. "We literally grow everything you can grow in our climate so all of our summer crops are great. We especially look forward to our corn, tomatoes, beans and peppers to name a few. Of these crops, we grow over 200 varieties." Additionally, "For us the most popular things we do well are our various beans, Mirai sweet corn, 20 varieties of strawberries, 16 types of potatoes and 230 types of apples." Since produce will be similar to past years, prices shouldn't fluctuate much.

Nichols Farm

Don't Always Shop Based On Price

When a piece of fruit or vegetable is priced cheaply, there might be a reason why, Todd warns. "Poor quality? Not Fresh? Purchased and resold? Avoid incredible uniformity. This often means it might have been purchased and resold. Look at the leaves of crops like corn, broccoli or greens. Look for wilting or browning, these are signs of age."

Related: Chicago's Best Community Gardens

Talk to the Farmer

Farmers know their crops best, so talk to them when choosing what to bring home. Todd suggests asking questions like, "by who and how was the crop grown? When was the crop picked? What variety is the crop?" And if you have a question about the price and why the produce may be priced the way it is, ask. No matter the question, the farmers won't steer you wrong. After all, they know their produce better than anyone.

Look for Unique and Rare Items

Famers' markets naturally abound with lots of fresh local produce, so keep your eye out for items that aren't in every stall. Rare items, Todd says, are often ones that the farms go to some trouble to produce. At a farm like Nichols, you're going to find a huge variety in crops. Some rare items you'll find at Nichols include, "fresh garbanzo beans, sunchokes, dry beans, heirloom varieties of apples, red and black currants, globe artichokes, salsify and more."

Nichols Farm

Carefully Choose Your CSA

When it comes time to chose a CSA (community supported agriculture), it may be hard to narrow down the field with so many great options available. Todd recommends first considering the farm's reputation and its ability to produce bountiful shares. Some questions you can ask of your potential CSA include, "Do you produce everything yourself? Do you offer fruit? How convenient is the pick-up?"

Related: A Guide To Planting A Family-Friendly Garden In Chicago

Elizabeth SanFilippo is a freelance writer, who enjoys trying new foods from all over the world. But her favorite city for culinary treats will always be Chicago. When not writing about food, she's scribbling novels, and TV show reviews and recaps. Her work can be found at


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