No sister act
How Kathe Roybal and Tracey Vowell went from cooking food to growing it.
No, Tracey Vowell and Kathe Roybal are not sisters, nor do they work with their sisters or for their sisters. If you’ve wondered about any of those things while eying their cornmeal or microgreens at Green City Market, you’re not alone. “We get a lot of people telling us about their sisters, or asking us where our other sister is,” Vowell explains. The women calmly explain that the name of their farm, Three Sisters Garden, refers not to any siblings but to the Native American practice of simultaneously growing corn, beans and squash—the “three sisters.” The plants thrive together: The corn provides a structure for the beans to climb, the beans add nitrogen to the soil, and the squash acts as a natural mulch that protects the soil and keeps pests away. It’s perfect plant harmony. It’s the type of harmony that Vowell and Roybal—partners of 25 years—were looking for when they bought a farm in Kankakee.
They hadn’t always planned to become farmers. A veteran of Chicago’s restaurant industry, Vowell spent 18 years in the kitchens of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, working her way up from grill cook to managing chef. Among her responsibilities was seeking out local produce and forging relationships with farmers. During her trips to farmers’ markets, she observed the farmers she met. “Their awareness of the world and things going on around them was very different,” she says. “That interested me.” Years of working in restaurants had left Vowell and Roybal (who also worked in the industry) wanting to slow down and gain some independence. (“Frontera is closed two days a week because you need those two days to physically recover,” Vowell says.) They began imagining their lives as farmers.
They bought what would become Three Sisters Garden in 2000. From the start, they knew they wanted to keep the operation small, sustainable and focused on native American plants. Everything else they figured out as they went along. Both women had gained some agricultural experience through stints at local nurseries and farms; still, they found themselves unprepared for running their own farm. “Those first few years, it seemed that there was a surprise waiting around every corner,” Vowell remembers. “[We] were almost crushing under the weight of things we did not know.”
Eventually, they learned. And in time they were successfully growing a variety of vegetables for the kitchens they once worked in. Yet even with a strong customer base of restaurants, Three Sisters wasn’t pulling a profit—the couple were still dependent on the income Vowell pulled in from being a consulting chef for Frontera. So they started thinking of ways to extend their income beyond the growing season. “It was like this puzzle to figure out how we could support ourselves year-round,” she says. The solution came in the form of storage products: cornmeal, oats and dried beans that could be sold throughout the winter. The oats, which are processed somewhere between steel-cut and rolled, gained a loyal following right away. “Because we are rolling within a few days of sales, the oats are very fresh tasting and nutty, whereas most of the rolled oats sold commercially have been rolled for probably months and begin to taste stale or even rancid,” Vowell says. The pair also oversee the production of pecans at Vowell’s dad’s property in Tennessee (they received a variance from Green City’s strict local rule that allows them to sell them at the market), and they are one of only a handful of folks to successfully grow cultivated huitlacoche, the fussy and fragile fungus that grows on corn and is highly prized in Mexican cuisine.
Now, more than a decade after buying the farm, Vowell and Roybal have gotten what they wanted. They have slowed down. They make a living off the land and are connected to its cycles. They value the relationships they have with fellow farmers, chefs and their customers at Green City Market (which they joined in 2008). And they have finally gotten used to being asked about their sisters.
Find Three Sisters Garden dry goods all year round at Green City Market and at Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand (66 E Randolph St, 312-742-8419).