Brockman Family Farming History

Brockman barn in 1912

Brockman barn in 1912, soon after it was built

Brockman barn in 2012

Brockman barn in 2012, at 100th anniversary

A Brief History of the Brockman Family Farm

by Herman Brockman

My grandparents, Herman Brockman and Maria Zachgo-Brockman, purchased the quarter section in east-central Illinois in 1898. Dad and Mother (Fred Brockman and Henrietta Zeedyk-Brockman), who were married in 1927, started farming in 1930—just in time for the real tough times of the Great Depression and the dust-bowl drought. Dad was a man of few words, but Mother told me how Dad worked to build up the soil fertility. He pitched manure into a hayrack (they couldn’t afford to buy a manure spreader), and then pitched it off “at the back 40.” He raised sweet clover and plowed it under to feed the soil. He grew timothy for the horses and red clover for the cows and sheep.

In retrospect, Dad, and his father before him, were organic farmers, as were all farmers at that time. Dad, and especially Mother, never embraced enthusiastically the new ways of farming that came to be after World War II. Mainly, they continued to rely on a crop rotation that included legumes for pasture and hay, and lots of manure from the horses (in the early years), cows, sheep, hogs, and chickens. They also applied limestone, rock phosphate, and potash as needed. It was highly diversified and sustainable farming, with cream and eggs sent to Chicago by train.

Unfortunately, Dad had to stop doing the fieldwork and having farm animals after he crushed his leg while harvesting corn in 1963. He was in the hospital for seven months, and didn’t get rid of the bone infection for another three years after that. But Mother and Dad continued to live on the farm, to act as landlords, to have enough hens for their own eggs, and to grow their own vegetables and fruit for about another 30 years.

During those decades when Mother and Dad rented the farm, the tenants insisted on mainly a corn-soybean rotation and high inputs of commercial fertilizers and pesticides. The folks were never happy with that kind of farming. Mother often railed against “all of those darn chemicals.”

I know that Mother and Dad, and my grandparents, would be very happy to know that 4th and 5th generations now live in the farm house, that the barn and chicken shed are once again a home for farm animals, and that Harold and Ross Wilken of Janie’s Farm Organics are farming their beloved land organically – for the benefit of the environment and for the future of all of us.

Herman and Marlene Brockman

Herman and Marlene Brockman

"I have had many strong environmental influences, but all of my genome came, of course, from my father and mother, German and Dutch gene pools, respectively. From them I received my great love of nature, especially of the farm – of the soil and all that it nurtures. They seemed to have known instinctively that which I later learned from Aldo Leopold in his A Sand County Almanac, which is his famous ‘land ethic,’ which, as he defines it, "simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land."

Herman Brockman was born in 1934 in the same room of the same farmhouse where his own father Fred had been born. Although he loved the farm life, he was also intelligent and studious, and his family and teacher encouraged him to go to college and get “a good job.” And so Herman got his PhD and taught genetics at Illinois State University for 35 years. When he retired, he started working on Henry’s Farm—proving that you can take the boy off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.

When Jill moved back to the family farm, Herman enlisted neighbors Harold and Ross Wilken of Janie’s Farm Organics to transition the century-old farm to certified organic production. Now that the farm is no longer doused in chemicals, Herman is proud that Leopold’s land ethic has taken root.

“No one, not even I, would have thought I’d end up sorting tomatoes, picking strawberries, and doing other farm-related work for the last 27 years and even now in my mid-80s. But I find the work satisfying, and do whatever needs to be done. Perhaps I have, as the scientist Barbara McClintock said, “a feeling for the organism.” The tomatoes communicate with me and tell me their stage of ripeness and reveal any imperfections — even tiny ones others don’t see. And so I wear the title “chief tomato sorter” with pride!”

Marlene Castiglia was born on the south side of Chicago to a family of immigrants from Calabria in southern Italy. They had a hard life, “with just a smidgen of land for chickens and a garden,” and this was not what Marlene intended for her future. She was a serious student, and the only one of her siblings to go to college. It was in a biology class at Blackburn College, where the teacher had the students sit in alphabetical order, that Brockman sat next to Castiglia, and the beginning of another clan began.

Herman and Marlene were married in 1956, as Marlene was finishing her RN and BS in nursing at Wesley Memorial (now Northwestern Memorial Hospital) in Chicago, and Herman was finishing his masters degree at Northwestern University. Their first children, Fred and Terra, were born in Tallahassee, Florida where Herman went to do his PhD. Beth and Teresa were born in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where Herman was doing his post-doctoral research. And Henry and Jill were born in Normal, Illinois, where the family moved for Herman’s job at Illinois State University. At this point Herman and Marlene detected a pattern, and stopped moving!

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