On the Record With ... Rich and Sonja Brook

Rich and Sonja Brook run the Brook Farm, which sells fresh produce, flowers and homemade popcorn at area farmers markets.
Rich and Sonja Brook run the Brook Farm, which sells fresh produce, flowers and homemade popcorn at area farmers markets.

The Brook Farm stand is a regular feature at the acclaimed Woodstock Farmers Market.

The business sells fresh vegetables, flowers and freshly-popped corn not only at the twice-weekly market, but also at its beautiful farm outside of Harvard, just south of the Wisconsin state line.

When Senior Reporter Kevin Craver looked up the farm for a story he wrote about the state standardizing health codes for farmers markets, the backgrounds of husband-wife team Richard and Sonja Brook piqued his interest. How did a retired research and development chemist and medical technician turned teacher from Mount Prospect get into farming? Rich, who like his wife has a master’s degree, decided to pursue farming instead of a doctorate.

Craver, whose growing canning obsession has included Brook Farm cucumbers that are now pickles, drove out to their Lawrence Road farm to get the answer.

Craver: What prompted this?

Rich Brook: I was kind of drawn to get out of the congested city, noise and mass of humanity. I come from the Ohio River valley of southeast Ohio, and was used to more of a small-town environment.

Sonja Brook: As we looked for places, we looked all around the collar counties ... we were looking at something up the road one night, drove by here with a Realtor, and Rich spotted this very nice farmland.

Rich Brook: It was like the Mormons when they spotted [Great] Salt Lake – this is it.

Craver: But obviously you couldn’t, uh, retire way early.

Sonja Brook: No. We had to have jobs to pay for this avocation.

Rich Brook: It’s what I call subsidizing your small-town farming addiction. We also had an infant and a 2-year-old. For two years I commuted, then I switched jobs to Morton International in Woodstock.

At 59½ I opted for early retirement. They were letting go of someone else and I talked to my boss and asked to let me take his retirement and severance package, and let him stay. He had a few kids at Northwestern, and he needed the money.

Craver: How did you get into small farming?

Rich Brook: I lived in Belpre, Ohio – “beautiful prairie” in French, where they grew a lot of vegetables to sell north in Cleveland, Columbus. There were many, many small farms, and for labor they used local kids ... my experience was mainly picking tomatoes.

I actually didn’t like it. I thought it was awful. But it was a tradition – everybody did it.

As soon as I could, I got out of there, and joined the Air Force at 17. One day when I was stationed near Seville, Spain, and waiting to get some planes off the tarmac, it just dawned on me that I’d really like to become a vegetable grower. I also realized that I ought to get a college degree, because I’d need to earn some money – no one was going to give it to me.

Sonja Brook: He didn’t tell me he had this epiphany when we met. Somebody had to tend the farm while he was at work, and for 15 years that’s what I did. But I also got my master’s degree in education from Northern Illinois University, got teacher certification, and taught in McHenry – three years in junior high, then 15 years in fifth grade in Harvard, all while continuing to farm.

Craver: You sell at the Woodstock and Lake Geneva farmers’ markets. Anywhere else?

Rich Brook: We’re selling to several restaurants ... they buy bushels and bushels of sweet corn, kale, tomatoes. A lot of restaurants are now going out of their way to advertise that they use locally-grown produce or serve locally-raised meat.

Craver: Tell me about the popcorn.

Sonja Brook: Popcorn is a new venture. We’ve grown the kernels for a number of years, but we finally got everything wrapped up with the health department to pop it, and got a commercially licensed kitchen in the farm.

Rich Brook: I built this barn out of salvaged lumber from Chicago. Set up a sawmill to saw it into the right sizes and shapes.


The Brook lowdown

Who are they? Richard and Sonja Brook, co-owners of Brook Farm in rural Harvard.

Family? Grown son and daughter, two grandchildren with a third on the way.

Farm address? 9306 Lawrence Road, Harvard.

Farm hours? 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where else? You can find them through the end of October at the Woodstock Farmers Market, which runs on the Square from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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