Doug and Beth Rinkenberger may have come from very different backgrounds, but together, it’s their love for the land and the surrounding community that has grown Garden Gate Farm.
Doug is a farm boy, born and raised. He worked on his family’s dairy and grain farm for the first half of his life, went off to the University of Illinois, graduated with a degree in Agricultural Economics, and eventually took a position at Zimmerman Feed and Grain, a small family owned feed mill outside of Forrest, Illinois.
Beth, on the other hand, was raised in west central Minnesota in the world of business. Her family founded a conveyer and gravel processing equipment business called Superior Industries, and her college interest was Interior Design.
The two world’s collided at a wedding in Minnesota where Doug’s cousin happened to be marrying Beth’s cousin. Sparks flew and in 1991 Doug and Beth married and began building a home just north of Fairbury, Illinois. Beth took up painting and raising their growing family of four girls, and Doug continued to work at the feed mill while also helping out at a neighboring friend’s farm after work. When a local dairy farm came up for sale in 2007, Doug suggested a return to his farming roots. Beth, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure. “I wasn’t sold on the whole farming thing back then,” says Beth laughing, because of course now she can’t imagine life without it.
The family took the leap and made the move to the farm, although neither Doug nor Beth saw the farm as a source of income at that time: a great place to raise children and live off the land, yes, but an actual way to make a living, not yet. Little by little though, they began acquiring chickens and planting a garden and unknowingly, laying the foundation for their future farming venture.
Ironically, it was Beth that first saw the potential for the farm to become something more than what it was. Out of curiosity, Beth attended a meeting held by a local farmer cooperative, the Stewards of the Land, in the Fairbury Library. There she met a small group of farmers working together to support each other and market their products collectively. Inspired by what the farmers around her were making happen on their farms through sustainable practices, she drug a skeptical Doug to the next meeting.
Soon after, a customer of Doug’s at the feed mill mentioned that he had a flock of about 40 turkeys that he no longer wanted and was looking for a place to sell them. And liked perfectly stacked dominoes, everything fell into place. Doug and Beth purchased the flock in August of that year, started them on a diet of non-gmo grains, and by November, were able to begin sales of the turkeys through the Stewards of the Land cooperative.
Since then, the farming operation has grown every year. They’ve expanded the flock, added a few heritage breeds, and now raise a small herd of other animals as well, including ducks, pigs, chickens, cows, a horse, a donkey, and a sheep.
“Doug's main interest is the livestock, but for myself I have found great joy in the vegetable production side of the farm. Our varied interests seem to spread out the responsibilities,” notes Beth, who decided that the old cow pasture on their farm was the perfect place to start raising vegetables for market. “After years and years of manure, and use, this area became the epitome of a perfect garden spot. It had 25-30% organic matter, and the soil nutrition was out of this world. We began a CSA in 2009, growing our business in our local area as well as into Bloomington, Illinois. In 2013 we were able to add two 50 foot hoop houses to our farm and that has helped extend our seasons by about 2 months. I love the relationships we have built with the people who come to us for healthier food options.”
While Beth cares for the vegetables, Doug’s main passion is the turkeys that are raised on their pastures nearly the entire year. They are fed non-gmo grain which Doug raises and grinds himself. “It's a really great feeling to know exactly what is in the feed your animals are consuming, to be able to look your customer in the eye and say, ‘yes, it's antibiotic free, and there are no growth hormones in it!’ A pastured turkey gets lots of sunshine, room to move around and natural vegetation and bugs to snack on. Ours seem very happy and we say they really only have one bad day in their lives” says Beth.
This February the family celebrated as Doug “retired” and began work at the farm full time. “It was a huge step of faith and so far we feel like it's been a good one,” the couple notes. Now Doug and their youngest daughter Cassie manage most of the daily operations on the farm.
Through small beginnings, hard work, and an abundance of love, the farm has grown into something more inspiring than either Doug or Beth ever would have guessed. Much more than just a farm, it is a sense of place, a sanctuary of goodness in an ever-changing world.
“We feel love for our farm, the various daycares and children’s groups that visit, the activities that tie us to the land around us. There is nothing that can compare to the feeling of walking in the dirt barefoot, eating the first tomato of the season as it is warmed by the sun, and the feeling of satisfaction as the day ends knowing that you have made a difference in other people’s lives.”
You can find Doug and Beth at the Springfield Holiday Farmers Market this Saturday. They’ll be selling local and lovingly-raised turkeys, smoking wood from various fruit trees (yep, smoking wood, how cool is that?!), non-gmo cornmeal, and a wide variety of produce and meats from neighboring Stewards of the Land farmers.