Living Water Farms

The Kilgus & Schneider Families
Strawn, IL
Specialty Greens & Micro Greens
Organically Grown

We interviewed Mark Schneider back in December of 2011

The Farm 
Perhaps you have had the privilege of tasting some of the freshest greens available in our region from Living Water Farms.  Former firefighter, Mark Schneider and his wife, Natalie started their hydroponic farm nearly 5 years ago in Strawn, Illinois, just 90 minutes south of Chicago.  Having both been raised in farming families, Mark and Natalie had the experience necessary to operate their own farming venture.  However, Living Water isn’t your typical land based farm. 

Situated up on a hill and surrounded by more traditional farm fields growing mostly corn, all of the farm’s crops are grown within two connected greenhouses each 23 feet wide and 132 feet long.  Six thousand square feet of space allows for nearly 15,000 active plant spaces at various stages of the growing cycle from seedling to harvest-ready. The farm produces specialty greens including Bibb, romaine, and mixed lettuces, arugula, Asian and mustard greens, basil plants, micro-greens, kale, and watercress.  They also grow pea tendrils, a 10-day old pea plant standing about 4-6 inches tall and similar to sprouts in both taste and texture.   

Returning to his family roots, Mark’s brother, Matthew, recently joined the Living Water crew. Matthew is in charge of the day-to-day operational tasks on the farm including managing the labor and maintaining the quality and quantity of the crops. Mark is often off-premise delivering vegetables to their many restaurants  and wholesale accounts including the Signature Room on the 95th floor of the John Hancock building, The Bristol, Lockwood, and of course yours truly, Fresh Picks. This gives Mark the opportunity to nourish his relationships with his customers and hear their feedback.  

Farm Practices 
Their shared passion for gardening inspired Mark and Natalie to construct a hydroponic operation that could grow greens year round in the Midwest.  Seeds are first planted in 1 ¼-inch size pots. Once they begin to sprout, they are transported to a channel with a constant flow of nutrient rich water.  At harvest age, the crops are picked with their roots intact and packaged together as a living plant.  Since the roots are still attached, the plant remains alive but temporarily goes dormant.  “It’s as if the sun disappeared for a few days,” Mark explains. “The life line is still there and the plant retains its freshness and lasts longer that way.” People can then harvest their own greens right out of their fridge as if it was just picked from the farm. 

This example of Controlled Environment Agriculture, or CEA, allows for an optimal year round growing season.  Mark and his team tried to “think like the plants” to nail down the science behind hydroponic growing.  Special lighting design and systems that maintain humidity and nutrient levels are in place.  The feeding system is tested periodically to ensure the nutrients in the water are well balanced. They also had to determine the ideal length of the growing day and perfect root zone temperatures.  While these variables are all controlled, it can still be challenging to maintain healthy plants and prevent diseases and insect infestations.

The Schneider’s practice Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a form of pest control that limits the use of chemicals, herbicides, and pesticides in crop production.  It can be a more labor intensive method of preventing pest infestations, but it certainly guarantees a healthier and tastier crop.  Living Waters is entirely chemical and pest-free.  An air-filtration system, or screen house, lines the insides of the greenhouses to prohibit the entry of any unwanted insects. A sophisticated filtration system, allows the Schneider’s to gather all of their water, re-sterilize and re-circulate it so that none goes to waste.  On a typical land based farm it takes 100 gallons of irrigation water to grow a mature head of lettuce.  Living Water only needs a single gallon to do the same job!  All of this conservation has inspired the family to explore the possibility of constructing wind turbines in the coming years to harness and recycle energy.  Being conveniently positioned on a hill would give them the strategic advantage to guarantee its success.  

Typical Farm Day 
Mark often starts his day at 6am at which time most of the greens are harvested and promptly whisked away to be chilled.  The greens need to be chilled for at least 24 hours, so following any early morning harvesting, Mark prepares his deliveries with greens that were harvested and chilled the day before. Once the truck is loaded, Mark is on his way to hand deliver his crops. Once he returns, he assists Matthew and his crew with any other harvesting into the evening hours.  Although the Schneider kids are too young to help out, they do enjoy playing on the farm and keeping the crew company throughout the day. 

Best of Farming 
What could be better than to enjoy fresh salad and cooking greens here in the Midwest all year long?  Even in the bitter cold of winter, we can eat as though it it’s still summer!  The demand for locally grown food is surging but finding local and sustainable greens can be a challenge. “It’s exciting to bring families and the local community fresh and healthy food, especially greens since they aren’t typically found in the region,” Mark says. 

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