On the Record With ... Rich and Sonja Brook
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.