Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, tech expert JEN QUINLAN, who works at meShare in Champaign, chats with staff writer Paul Wood about her side project, Moon Grove Farm, a farmhouse bed-and-breakfast and you-pick flower farm started in November 2017 in Mahomet.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Glenn Dale, Md., and graduated from the University of Maryland.
You lived in Chicago, right?
After college, my best friend Kate suggested I check out Chicago for the summer and stay with her family in Skokie. A part-time summer job quickly turned into picking up a full-time day job and getting my own place near Wrigley Field.
And how did you get to Champaign?
During my year in Chicago, two great things happened to me. First, I found my career in tech marketing. Second, I met Mike. At the time he was living in Champaign, his hometown, and getting ready to move to Albuquerque, N.M., for a regional sales job. We met in January 2006 and have been together ever since, marrying in October 2011. We spent nearly a decade away in Albuquerque and Austin, Texas, before returning back to Illinois in 2014. Our move back to Illinois was driven by our interest to live in a right-sized town, live closer to family and pursue our small-scale farm interests.
What do you like about central Illinois?
When it came to picking a spot where we wanted to build roots, the Midwest is more our style. People are friendly and down to earth. We truly believe Champaign-Urbana is a perfect-sized town. You get to be a part of the community and cross paths with friends everywhere. However, you also can do your own thing and have independence. It's a great balance.
Is it true you're a portrait artist?
I like making things. By day, I build startups. For fun, I paint abstract artwork, and on the weekends, I grow flowers. Since high school, I've pursued painting as a personal outlet. In college, I sold my paintings in coffee shops. In New Mexico, I had a small gallery show, and on our farm today, I sell my paintings through our farmstand. Even more rewarding than creating artwork is passing the passion on to my nieces and nephews to develop their art skills.
How did you get into small-scale farming?
You can only spend so many hours staring at computer screens. In Austin, while working in mobile software, I got the bug to get my hands literally dirty through backyard gardening. It was the perfect outlet to unplug. When we moved back to Illinois, I immediately started planning a vegetable patch for our house in Champaign, signed up for two plots at Parkland and took a few workshops through local ag programs. For the past two years, I've also volunteered with Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery. Since moving out to Moon Grove Farm in 2017, we've enjoyed a lot of trial and error to grow produce.
What made you decide to start Moon Grove Farm? I understand you were at a goat farm in Oregon.
Mike and I both lack an ag background. We didn't grow up on a farm, our parents weren't farmers and we didn't inherit land. These factors can be major showstoppers for a small-scale farm dream. For the past five years, we've pursued hands-on learning opportunities to right-size our farm dream into something feasible and reasonable for us to pursue.
Who were your mentors?
We were very fortunate to get to know Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperband, co-owners of Prairie Fruits Farm. In exchange for interning on their farm, they shared a wealth of knowledge regarding the challenges and opportunities with small-scale, farm-based businesses. By the time the Moon Grove Farm property was listed online, we jumped at the chance. Within 48 hours, our offer was accepted. A property this special, and right-sized for us, did not come along very often. I know, as I had obsessively checked 1-acre or more properties within 20 miles of Champaign as a daily ritual for several years.
How have adapted to the land?
The property dictated the business for us: part-time B&B: The house was in pristine condition, having undergone a major renovation several years prior. Beyond painting walls and decorating, the major work was done. We pursued the steps to get a special-use permit for bed-and-breakfast and events from the county, passed the health inspection and got two- or three-bedroom B&B packages listed online.
And the you-pick flower farm?
We were inspired by agritourism success stories across Prairie Fruits, Curtis Orchard and Hardy's Reindeer Ranch. We decided to grow zinnias and do a weekend you-pick flower field. Overall, we grew from seed about 1,000 zinnia plants, and we had about 500 flower-farm guests this past summer. We also did pop-up flower stands through Yellow & Company boutique in Mahomet.
And fresh produce?
The previous owners established a wide range of sustainable plants on the property (rhubarb, asparagus, berry bushes, fruit trees, a nut tree). For our first year, we focused on vegetables we know how to grow. We primarily grew the produce for ourselves but sold a portion of it through our farmstand when the flower field was open. We were also fortunate to grow a relationship with Lucky Moon Pies & More in Mahomet. They made quiches from our asparagus and rhubarb pies.
Mike's originally from Rantoul, coaches baseball at Centennial and teaches at Parkland. You worked on website projects at Hobbico and lead marketing at meShare and have worked in digital marketing. How did a techie and a teacher become foodies?
I wouldn't necessarily call us foodies. However, we do thoroughly enjoy growing fresh produce on our farm and serving good food to our B&B guests. Nothing beats making a rhubarb crumble or black-raspberry smoothie from your own garden.
As a volunteer at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, did you learn anything that really helped you?
Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperband are incredible people. We're very inspired by what they've built at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery. Through interning at Prairie Fruits, I've learned a lot about the role agritourism can play in a business and within the community.
You moved to Moon Grove Farm in 2017. How has the work been going in changing it from weeds to flowers?
Our first year was all about getting to know the property and picking up skills as quickly as possible. When we first moved in, we had 2 acres of weeds to tackle. Since then, it's been a fun process of learning about all of the sustainable plants the previous owners started (they even gave us a map) and slowly building upon their hard work. Operating the you-pick flower field was a great experience. We grew about 1,000 plants from seed in our driveway and hand-sowed them in the field. We loved meeting so many locals that came out to pick flowers, and we can't wait to start digging in dirt again as soon as weather permits.
What have been some of the other challenges of creating a business?
We've learned the importance of pacing ourselves and staying focused. We have so many ideas of what we want to do in the future, but it has been good to focus in our first year on a few key projects to see what works and learn as we go.
Do you have a guilty pleasure and what is it?
From Gordyville to Goodwill, hunting for vintage stuff at thrift stores or flea markets is my vice.
Tell me about your favorite pet.
That's tough to say — we have a lot of amazing animals that live at Moon Grove. Beyond our pug mixes, Zoey and Oates, we have a charming barn cat named Oscar and three very sweet goats named Apollo, Cockelburr and Athena. We also have 10 hens.
What would you order for your last meal?
Maryland crabs and a Triptych beer.
What's your best piece of advice?
Take risks and stay inspired.
What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?
Lifeguard — barely made enough for gas money.