Chicago City Provisions organic farm dinners

It’s Green Travel Month here at Gadling, so to get into the green spirit, I booked a special dinner with Chicago’s City Provisions Catering and Events, an eco-friendly catering company. City Provisions works with local farmers and suppliers, sends its organic waste back to farmers for composting, and sources all of its ingredients from organic and sustainable providers. The company offers catering services both off-site and at its city space, and is in the process of opening up a deli. It also hosts a monthly supperclub. In winter, dinners are held at the storefront location, but in the warmer months the meal is served out on a local farm, using fresh ingredients grown on-site. August’s dinner was held at Heritage Prairie Farm, about an hour north of Chicago. Heritage Prairie also does its owns farm dinners, but drinks and transportation are not included, as they are with City Provisions.

At 1 p.m., my husband and I arrived at the City Provisions location in Chicago. While we checked in, we were offered soft drinks – served in 100% compostable glasses – and light snacks. Then we, and the 38 other diners, boarded the biodiesel bus for the ride out to the farm. Along the way, we were introduced to Cleetus, the mastermind behind City Provisions. We enjoyed some BLT sandwiches, tomato gazpacho, and Great Lakes Brewing beers, and prepared ourselves for the upcoming feast.

Once at the farm, we met the owners and the farmers who work the land. They led us on a tour of the small property and explained the sustainable practices they employ to make the farm as efficient as possible. While Heritage Prairie is not a certified organic farm, the methods they use, such as allowing weeds to grow in certain areas rather than using pesticides, are green and eco-friendly. One of the most unique features of the farm is the three movable greenhouses, which allow the farmers to engaging in a practice known as “four-season farming”. The greenhouses are on tracks and can be moved up and down the length of the field, covering different sections as needed. This allows the farm to harvest some crops as late as January, long past the time when most other farms have halted their efforts for the year.

The tour took us through one of the smaller greenhouses, where we saw the wooden growing beds where seeds were left to germinate. Due to the farm’s small size, it’s very important that it be as efficient as possible. To ensure that every inch of the field is productive, the soil beds in the growing greenhouse are cut up into smaller squares, and only the successful ones are moved to the field. In this way, no field space is wasted. After exploring the grounds, we browsed through the farm’s market for honey made on-site and fresh produce and herbs grown at the farm.

By 5 p.m., we were sitting down to dinner at an elegantly-dressed table in the field. As we helped ourselves to baby eggplant baba ganouj with pita chips, servers began pouring the beer that would accompany each course. Provided by Great Lakes Brewing, one of the most environmentally-responsible brewers in the US, the beer was paired according to each course, and many of the dishes utilized the beer for their sauces.

Over the next three hours, we enjoyed five courses of delicious, fresh-from-the-farm food expertly prepared by the City Provisions chefs, who were all decked out in organic cotton chef’s jackets that had buttons made from nuts rather than plastic. Between each course, we had the chance to mingle with fellow diners and we learned about the process of brewing beer and about the sustainable practices at Great Lakes Brewing from owner Pat Conway.

Our first course, a delicate micro-green salad, was topped with sun gold tomatoes and a vinaigrette made with Grassroots beer from Great Lakes and honey produced on the farm. Next came a colorful mix of seared rainbow chard, baby leeks, currants and pine nuts, with crispy pancetta served over brown rice with a balsamic sauce made from the accompanying Edmund Fitzgerald Porter.

Course three – a zucchini cake topped with basil creme fraiche and served with baby carrots and more of the farm’s microgreens – was just as delightful. By the time course four rolled around, everyone at the table had become fast friends, and we traded stories while oohing and aahing over the grilled pork brat that was topped with grain mustard and served with potato salad and green beans in a browned-butter sauce.

Just when we thought our tummies had been filled to bursting, the final course was brought out. A light-as-air pavlova was topped with caramel-honey cream and fresh peaches and was served alongside a rich Glockenspiel beer. As we licked the last of the cream from our forks and tilted back our glasses to catch the last drops of beer, the chefs were busy setting up another surprise. While dinner had ended, the evening was far from over, and as we stood from the table, we saw that a bonfire had been started, more beer was ready to be consumed, and the ingredients for classic s’mores were laid out nearby. We drank, ate, and relaxed while enjoying the searing colors of the sun setting over the fields.

At 10 p.m., it was time to re-board the bus and return to our city lives. Our indulgent dinner may not have single-handedly saved the planet, but our support of farmers and producers who use sustainable methods may help encourage other restaurants and farmers to take a step in a greener direction too.

Can’t make it to Chicago to book a farm dinner with City Provisions? Here are some other green-focused farm dinners around the country.

Austin, Texas – Dai Due Supper Club
Portland, Oregon – Plate & Pitchfork Farm Dinners
Old Lyme, Connecticut – Dinners at the Farm
Ashville, North Carolina – Maverick Farms
Boulder, Colorado – Meadow Lark Farm Dinners
Point Arena, California – Oz Farm
Various locations – Outstanding in the Field

Sustainble Farming Program in Uganda Offers Hope and Help

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP) in Uganda is well-known throughout the world as the home for nearly half of the world’s population of critically endangered mountain gorillas. However, gorillas are no longer the only entity on Uganda’s endangered list. Bwindi’s local people have also felt the brunt of years of illegal logging and other activities which have slowly degraded the area.

Fortunately, the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was established as a national park in 1991, and was initially designed to protect both its treasured gorillas along with its precious and deteriorating forestland, and as of today, the program has been a great success. Yet, while the park itself has benefited from a surge in tourism (thousands of visitors pass through the park every year on pricey gorilla treks), Bwindi locals have not been able to reap much financial benefit from the increased tourism, which in turn, has caused considerable conflict amongst the community.

Much of this socioeconomic dichotomy has been contributed to revenue loss due to the procurement of food products designed for local lodges and restaurants coming from outside the area (as far as a ten hour drive away). Considering the most common livelihood for locals is subsistence farming, and that the area’s soil is extremely fertile, developing a farmer’s association where locals could gain cash income by supplying fruits, vegetables and other products to a growing tourism industry seemed a natural solution.

Thus, the Bwindi Advanced Market Grower’s Association (AMAGARA, which means ‘life”, in the local language Rukiga) was born, and it has been evolving ever since.

Situated only four kilometers from the BINP gate, visitors can get a firsthand glimpse at the association’s gardens, which boasts everything from fiery red chili’s to sweet honey (harvested from their own bee hives). Guests of AMAGARA can take a personal tour led by on-site team members which offers education on how the association operates and how a wide range of growing techniques are taught to local farmers. Cooking classes featuring the traditional cuisine of Uganda are also offered daily, and are led by the institute’s professionally trained chef, Moses, who shares his personal recipes and cooking tips, including a few rather interesting twists on classic dishes.

An on-site garden shop sells a wide selection of gifts including packaged honey and tea from Bwindi. Purchases from the garden shop directly support the work of AMAGARA as well as that of the local community.

For traveler’s looking for a complete African Mountain Gorilla safari, Volcano Safaris, a company that specializes in great ape ecotourism and who is a well-known leader in its industry, has recently partnered with AMAGARA. As part of their gorilla trekking safari, which already includes tracking in the BINP and lodge accommodations, guests can also tack on a visit to AMAGARA when staying at the Volcanoes Bwindi Eco-Lodge. The lodge, which overlooks the forest, features eight bandas and utilizes only local materials and solar energy. Meals are prepared on-site and highlight produce purchased directly from AMAGARA.


Work and play in Queensland, Australia: Farm Work

So, you have your visa and you’re ready to head to Australia for to earn some money while backpacking for a year or two but fruit picking just doesn’t sound that interesting to you. Well, if you’ve been paying attention this week, you know that the Australian government considers many forms of manual labor to be Specified Work, and that’s what lets you get a second visa (if you are from a country that qualifies). And one such type of employment is plant and animal cultivation. Yes, that category does encompass the fruit picking that I covered yesterday, but it also includes cattle mustering, animal processing and other livestock related activities. In other words, good old-fashioned, See ‘n Say-style farm work.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But, Mike, I have never worked on a farm before. Why would anyone hire me to herd sheep, work with cattle or drive a tractor?” It’s a reasonable question that many backpackers must be asking themselves before they pack their bags for Australia. And thankfully, there is a farm in Queensland where you can spend a week learning the various skills that one would need to be successful in this type of Specified Work. I visited this training farm and had an intensive one-day learning experience to see what it’s like to work on a farm in order to finance a backpacking holiday. I very quickly discovered that that farm life is not easy, but it is also far from boring.


Springbrook Farm

About 240km northwest of Brisbane sits the tiny town of Goomeri (population 400). Just outside of town is Springbrook Farm, a 2,500 acre cattle and training farm. Owned by Dan and Joanna Burnet, Springbrook Farm raises cattle for beef and trains backpackers on how to make themselves employable on farms around Australia.

The five-day training course at Springbrook covers several farm disciplines:

  • Horse riding and mustering
  • Motorcycling
  • Tractor driving and machine operation
  • Cattle work
  • Fencing
  • Chainsaw operation

First, some definitions. Mustering is just another way of saying wrangling. When you’re moving cattle from one place to another, you’re mustering. See, you’re on your way to being qualified to work on a farm and you haven’t even left your cubicle! And, as far as fencing goes, leave your rapiers and foils at home. This refers to actual fences and the work involved to install and mend them. If you’re going to muster cattle, you need to have fences.

Second, why motorcycling? Well, as the Burnets explained, many farms herd sheep while riding dirt bikes. Of course, I had hoped that this meant that the sheep rode the bikes, but I was mistaken. Farmers, however, use the bikes to stay ahead of the sheep and get them moving in the right direction.

Backpackers who come through Springbrook Farm for training spend five days learning these skills. We sped through several subjects in one day under the tutelage of a very patient trainer. Having never ridden a dirt bike before, I mastered certain aspects, like continuously moving forward, very quickly. However, I also learned that the initial start-up was a unique challenge that once resulted in me “parking” the motorcycle in a shed immediately upon giving it some gas. But the staff at Springbrook took their time with everyone and showed that safety and self-sufficiency are their two main priorities.

In other words, don’t expect to be coddled when you are learning farm work. In order to get you placed on a working farm, Springbrook makes sure that you have not only the skills but the work ethic to succeed. So, as you tackle new tasks, you’ll receive detailed instructions from your trainers and then figure out any difficulties you face on your own, just as you will once you are employed on a working farm.

Mustering offered it’s own unique set of challenges. Even experienced horseback riders will find that adding the activity of moving cattle in specific directions makes everything markedly more difficult. Cattle, obviously, do not always want to move (or have differing opinions on which direction they should go). And horses don’t always want to obey. Add an uncertain rider to the equation, and, well, mustering can quickly devolve into animals running in random directions while perplexed and frightened farmers-in-training yell, “whoa,” in increasingly frantic tones.

I make this assessment after I experienced mustering for the first time while visiting Springbrook Farm. Mustering for beginners is an exercise in organized chaos, as riders struggle to guide horses, horses struggle to run free and cattle struggle to out-wit their pursuers. After what seemed like an eternity but was probably only 90 minutes or so, with the guidance of our trainer, the skill of one geriatric mare and sheer luck, we moved the cattle to the desired location and only one person was thrown from her horse.

This may be a good time to note that farm work is dangerous. It’s not for everyone. It requires you to always be alert and cautious. Once again, I am not trying to scare anyone away from this type of working holiday, but if you are expecting a watered-down, reality TV version of farm living, then it would be best if you stayed on your couch. Springbrook Farm prepares you for real farm work, and real farm work involves scrapes, bruises and the occasional accident.

At the end of the day, however, you feel fulfilled and proud. And, you reture to some fairly comfortable accommodations Backpackers training at Springbrook stay in a cozy house with shared rooms, a deck that was seemingly designed for barbecues and a pool. During my visit, several of the trainees in attendance had farm experience before they arrived and were just enhancing their skills before seeking employment elsewhere in Australia. Others were learning farm life for the first time and pursuing the adventure that such a unique challenge can provide.


The Burnets also founded VisitOz, which handles the training and job placement of hundreds of backpackers looking for farm work every year. Springbrook Farm is one of the training farms that functions within the VisitOz operations. Enrolling in VisitOz and utilizing their serves will cost around $1,990 AUD (roughly $1,500 USD) but you receive quite a bit in return. Included in the price is assistance with travel arrangements, nine total days of accommodations in Brisbane, Rainbow Beach and, finally, at your training farm, and, of course, your training and job placement. It may seem like a steep price to pay, but if you are intent on finding farm work with a respectable farm, experience with a program like VisitOz can pay huge dividends. And, if you have limited farm experience, it may be the difference between success and injury once you start work.

The stay in Rainbow Beach serves a vital purpose, according to the Burnets. As Dan told us, a farm is no place to get over jet-lag. Farmers need their staff to be rested and focused. This allows everyone to use the time on the farm as efficiently as possible.

The Burnets communicate with working farms and provide them with information on their trainees. By the end of the five days of training, most backpackers receive several job offers from farms and can select the opportunity that most interests them.

Know before you go

Whether you’re planning on utilizing the services of a training farm or finding farm work on your own, it’s best to prepare yourself in advance of your arrival in Australia. Dan Burnet’s advice was to pick up whatever skills you can while you are still at home. For example, become certified in CPR or First Aid. If you have the opportunity to gain experience on horseback, take advantage of it. Anything you can do to make yourself more appealing to farmers and, obviously, keep yourself safe while working is beneficial.

Farm work is difficult and tiring. During your time on the farm, you’ll wake up early, work until you are sore and fall asleep shortly after sunset. But, unlike fruit picking, you will be working with animals and experiencing adventurous activities that will test you mentally as well as physically.

And when your time on the farm is done, you will have a substantial amount of money in your pocket. How substantial? Depending on your qualifications, farm work can pay anywhere from $250-$1000 AUD (roughly $200-$800 USD) per week, with room and board on the farm provided free of charge. Tucked away on a farm for a few months, you can plan quite the Aussie adventure once your time at work comes to an end. All the more reason to stay safe and leave the farm with all of your appendages in tact.

Mike Barish spent a week in Queensland, Australia on a trip sponsored by Backpacking Queensland to see how backpackers find employment and entertain themselves down under. He’ll be sharing what he learned about the logistics of working in Australia’s Sunshine State and the myriad activities that young travelers have at their disposal. Read other entries in his series HERE.

Work and play in Queensland, Australia: Visas

Australia is a tremendously easy country through which to backpack. It has superb infrastructure, seamless transportation systems that allow you to traverse its massive landscape and a surplus of affordable accommodations. It’s no wonder that so many European and American teens are delaying their entrance into college or the “real world” for a year and are working their way through extended Australian holidays. But before you defer your admission to Southwest State A&M Tech and head down under with visions of boomerangs and dingos dancing through your head, there are a few things that any young person needs to know about how to work and backpack through Australia legally. The last thing you want is to be deported. That’s just embarrassing.

American? I Have Good News & Bad News

So, you’re a US citizen (or from Chile, Thailand, Malaysia or Turkey) and you want to work and backpack through Australia. Are you between the ages of 18 and 30? Are you healthy and free of any criminal history? Can you speak English at a “functional level?” Then the Australian Work and Holiday visa (Subclass 462) is just the paperwork for you!

The good news is, you can visit Australia for twelve months, leave and enter the country any number of times during that period, pick up some temporary employment along the way and study for up to four months. According to the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship, this visa “is for you to holiday and travel in Australia. Any work should be temporary to supplement your funds. Periods of work should be broken up by periods of holiday and travel.” In other words, this visa is less about the work and more about making sure you don’t end up broke in Australia while traveling.

Holders of this visa may not work for the same employer for more than six months. Violating that rule may result in cancellation of your visa. There’s that embarrassment again. You can pick up any job that you’d like, however, so Australia is your oyster. But all you get is 12 months in the country, so make the most of it. No extensions or second visas are offered on the Subclass 462 Work and Holiday visa. And that, my friends, is the bad news.

The Luckier Countries

Australia offers another type of visa that is much more liberal and allows for significantly more time in the country. The Working Holiday visa (Subclass 417) is for people from Belgium, Canada, Republic of Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Republic of Ireland, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Taiwan and United Kingdom. Once again, you must be age 18 to 30, healthy and not be a criminal. If you fit the bill, you can work and play in Australia for up to twelve months. But from there, this visa begins to provide a few more options for residents of these lucky countries.

You see, if you perform three months of specified work while on your Working Holiday visa, you become eligible for a second Working Holiday visa. In other words, you can double your time down under and explore Australia for up to 24 months. No too shabby. But what qualifies as specified work? I’m glad you asked.

Specified Work

Specified Work is very…um, specific. Before I get my high school English teacher too upset, let me explain to you the most important thing you need to know about Specified Work: It’s not easy. If you were dreaming about bartending for three months and improving your bottle twirling skills in exchange for a second visa, well, you’ve watched Cocktail too many times. Essentially, Specified Work benefits the state and gives back to the country that’s letting you roam around freely for 12 to 24 months. So, you’re going to get your hands dirty in exchange for that second visa. But it will be rewarding, help you meet both other backpackers and local Australians and allow you to see parts of the country that are even more beautiful than those more often visited by tourists.

Specified Work includes:

  • plant and animal cultivation
  • fishing and pearling
  • tree farming and felling
  • mining
  • construction

The most popular form of Specified Work is plant and animal cultivation. While the phrase may make the work seem overly daunting, in essence this category encompasses fruit picking and general farm work. For example, in Queensland, banana farming is a $200 million AUD industry. Those bananas aren’t picking themselves, so farmers employ backpackers from all over the world to pick, sort and box the fruit year-round.

After three months doing Specified Work, travelers on a Subclass 417 visa are eligible for a second visa and 12 more months in Australia. Australia gets a steady stream of young, healthy and eager workers to work in jobs that provide for the state and travelers get money to subsidize their lengthy trip through Australia. In other words, it’s a win-win.

Once again, travelers can leave and enter the country any number of times and cannot work for any one employer for longer than six months. And studying is limited to four months. In other words, work to put some money in your pocket and then get back to exploring Australia’s vast array of activities and wonder. Many hostels will typically partner with local farmers and other employers whose endeavors qualify as Specified Work to help backpackers find positions. These hostels cater to extended stay backpackers, so the accommodations are comfortable, clean and conducive to making people feel at home.

Know Before You Go

The good folks at Backpacking Queensland arranged for me to tour both a banana farm and a farm that specializes in training young people and assisting them with finding cattle farm work. Later in this series, I’ll profile both of those farms and go into more detail on what it’s like to be employed doing Specified Work.

Picking up and moving to another country for an extended period of time requires a fair amount of preparation. Do your research, speak with people who have been there before and understand what you want to get out of the situation. Australia is a very welcoming place and has created visa options that benefit the country and its visitors. Being informed before you get there will help you avoid any potential pitfalls that could result in visa problems or, even worse, deportation. Man, that would be really embarrassing.

For more information, check out the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship website.

Mike Barish spent a week in Queensland, Australia on a trip sponsored by Backpacking Queensland to see how backpackers find employment and entertain themselves down under. He’ll be sharing what he learned about the logistics of working in Australia’s Sunshine State and the myriad activities that young travelers have at their disposal. Read other entries in his series HERE.

Photo of the Day (10-29-08)

This time of year in Ohio, it’s hard not to trip over a pumpkin. They march up people’s porch steps. They perch on hay bales in front of grocery stores, and they fill tables at roadside fruit stands. Some folks sell pumpkins as fundraisers. Heading to a farm to pick a pumpkin from a field is a favorite fall activity in this blocky sliver of the world.

When I saw Brian Brook’s photo of this pumpkin field, the eye-popping colors reminded me of two Saturdays ago when my son had an impulse to go bowling with pumpkins when we meandered through a similar field. I did stop him.

And there was the pumpkin patch last Saturday at Young’s Jersey Dairy near Yellow Springs, Ohio where we picked up our fifth pumpkin. We are not planning on getting a sixth. If we do, I know where to find one.

If you have any photos with eye-popping colors, send them our way at Gadling’s Flickr Photo Pool to be considered for the Photo of the Day.