"The best lettuce I've ever had!"

Sep 25, 2015

Let Us Farm in Geneseo, Illinois

GARDNER: Stop by the Let Us Farm booth at the Freight House Farmers' Market, and you can take your pick from the bins heaped high with lettuce leaves of every shape and size.

But you're also likely to get a joke from owner Randy Hoovey.

RANDY HOOVEY: We had some problems with our lettuce last week, I don't know if you knew that. So we sent some off to a plant expert and he came back and said I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is it looks like the head is going to live, the bad news is its going to be a vegetable for the rest of it's life.

GARDNER: Hoovey works side by side with his wife and partner, Lee. Together, they grow more than 20 varieties of lettuce, along with other leafy vegetables like collards, kale and chard, on their small farm outside Geneseo, Illinois.

And although there is a lot of good humor mixed in with what they do, there is also some serious thinking about organic growing practices.

For Lee, it comes down to one basic principal.

LEE HOOVEY: I want what goes into my body to be healthy and no pesticides. We've never done any pesticides at all, and from way back when, I don't think they are good for you. I think they cause a lot of problems that we have no clue of exactly how or why all the different things work in the body.

GARDNER: That means when it comes to tending their lettuce beds, the Hooveys use some old-fashioned methods. They pull weeds by hand and they rely on beneficial insects like ladybugs to help keep other pests at bay.

But they also use newer techniques, like laying down sheets of paper mulch to keep weeds from growing up around the lettuce leaves. The mulch is made from corn starch and can be composted at the end of the season. For Lee and Randy, that makes more sense than using the sheets of plastic commonly used to control weeds on other farms.

RANDY HOOVEY: We just don't think it's going along with the organic, you know with the PCBs and all that kind of stuff. If we were going to do that sort of stuff we wouldn't be organic in the first place.

LEE HOOVEY: I also think it heats up the soil too much and kills your microbes, and what's the point of the organics if you're going to kill your microbes?

GARDNER: They say those tiny microbes play a vital role in the health of the soil, something they have really come to understand in their eight years in the business. Healthy soil makes for healthy vegetables.

But it's one thing to grow good vegetables, and it's another to get people to eat them. That's part of why the Hoovey's grow such a wide variety of lettuce, to appeal to a wide range of tastes. It's also why they always offer samples for customers to nibble at their booth.

RANDY HOOVEY: And the customers are the most fun part of the whole operation, and I do that to them all the time. They'll make a comment, and they'll say, “Oh, this is wonderful lettuce.” And what I usually do is step back about five paces and say, “I'm sorry, I didn't hear that. Could you repeat that louder?” And so the people around us, the vendors around us, hear them scream at the top of their lungs, “This is the best lettuce I've ever had!” I don't know what they think when they hear that, but we have fun.

GARDNER: You can read more about Let Us Farm at radishmagazine.com, and discover more people involved in healthy living from the ground up in the pages of Radish magazine.

For Radish on the Radio and WVIK, I'm Sarah Gardner.