Havilah Gardens provides year-round produce

Fresh fruits and produce are easy to come by in the summer months. With numerous farmers' markets in Champaign County — including one on Main Street in Mahomet on Fridays — folks who want to eat healthy don't have to go far.

But in the winter months, it's a different story.

Thanks to David Wickboldt, Mahomet residents will have the option for fresh vegetables even in the winter.

Wickboldt founded Central Illinois Aquaponics in July 2014. Based in Bellflower, his aquaponic farm allows fresh vegetables to be grown year-round in a climate-controlled greenhouse, and all are grown in water that is nourished by fish.

"It works as a symbiotic system where the fish provide waste, which gets converted into nitrate, which is what the plants primarily feed on," Wickboldt said.

Over the last couple of years, Wickboldt has perfected the craft of aquaponic farming, and as his business grew, he decided there needed to be a new name. After some serious thought, Havilah Gardens was the name that fit best.

"We really felt like we needed something with a story, not a brand," Wickboldt said. "Central Illinois Aquaponics was purposely pretty generic, and we brainstormed a little while and came up with Havilah Gardens.

"In the book of Genesis, the land of Havilah was the land in between two of the main rivers in the Garden of Eden. It was the land where gold was found. It means circular, which describes our recirculation system perfectly. We have the river, the gold is the produce, and I think it's a pretty cool name that describes what we do and how we do that."

Havilah Gardens has been a staple at the new Mahomet farmers' market. Every Friday from 4 to 7 p.m., Havilah Gardens sets up a stand in the grass area east of the village administrative building on Main Street in downtown Mahomet. It is currently the only vegetable vendor at the Mahomet farmers' market.

"Really, my goal behind this is to get more local food in the hands of people in the area and we're producing that," Wickboldt said. "I enjoy doing it, getting in front of people, talking to them and showing them our product because we know it is really good."

Havilah Gardens is also one of many vegetable vendors at the Tuesday afternoon farmers' market in Champaign. Located at the corner of Neil and Main streets, the market runs every Tuesday from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. That market will continue through October.

Havilah Gardens is known for its delicious lettuce. Because it is grown in the climate-controlled greenhouse, the lettuce doesn't ever get bitter — which is a major advantage over other farmers.

"We've been able to establish that we grow lettuce year-round in the greenhouse," Wickboldt said. "The people growing it outdoors can't do it because of the heat. We do it because our water temperature stays low enough to keep the lettuce from getting bitter. We found little niches here and there with English cucumbers. People enjoy those. Recently, we've been selling fig trees and figs from our fig tree that is in our greenhouse. Those are super popular."

In addition to lettuce, English cucumbers and figs, Havilah Gardens also has fresh basil, cherry tomatoes, green beans, summer squash, garlic and even celery.

"Celery is really a niche for us because wherever we go, no one else is growing it," Wickboldt said. "It flourishes in an aquaponics system. A lot of farmers have tried to grow it, but it's inconsistent for them. It grows consistently well for us in the hydroponic system."

Havilah Gardens will continue to be at the area farmers' markets but hopes to get into supplying fresh produce for restaurants in the winter.

"We're a regular supplier of one restaurant, but it is the summer and there is a lot of availability from the other growers," Wickboldt said. "Our real niche with that will come in the fall and winter when we're the only local producer who they can buy from."

In the coming months, prepared salads could be on the way as well. Providing fresh, healthy, locally grown food has been Wickboldt's mission from the very beginning.

"We've really shifted our focus to providing a good quality crop and having outlets to sell what we're growing," Wickboldt said. "Those three years of experience and patience allowed us to perfect what we're doing. So now, when we get someone to ask us to grow something, we can say, 'Yeah, we'll grow that. We know what the conditions are. We can plan what we need to do to produce that.'"

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