Keeping Suttill's Gardens in the family

click to enlarge Caitlyn Suttill Simpson and her mother now manage the farm. “This isn’t just a hobby,” Caitlyn says, “this is my life.” - PHOTOS COURTESY SUTTILL FAMILY
PHotos courtesy suttill family
Caitlyn Suttill Simpson and her mother now manage the farm. “This isn’t just a hobby,” Caitlyn says, “this is my life.”
While the rest of the world is innovating to rethink the global food system, Caitlyn and Jacque Suttill Simpson are buckling down on the basics. The mother-daughter team own and operate Suttill's Gardens, a five-acre produce farm located just a quarter mile east of Southeast High School in Springfield. Caitlyn is the fifth generation to feel the call of the soil, and came back to the farm in 2014 to work alongside her mom and grandfather, Ron. "I could see the change in her that summer," Jacque said. "She'd gotten the bug I've always had, and I thought, OK, she's here to stay."

Growing up on the family farm, Caitlyn and Jacque inherited a legacy of skill and knowledge dating back to 1904 with their great-great grandmother Pearl Suttill's truck garden on Laurel Avenue. Indeed, this is where my own family's garden legacy converges with the Suttills. My great-great-grandfather, Walter Stevens, lived down the street from the Suttills on Cornell Avenue. He supported nine children by working the mines in the winter and raising produce for sale in the summers. He, along with the Suttills, were part of a group that came to be known as East End Truck Gardeners. These side businesses have always involved the whole family. I remember my great-grandfather, Bob Stevens, born in 1908, recounting to me how he would get up early to help his dad deliver produce to local restaurants and grocers before school.

The Suttills' farm moved to its current location on Groth Street in the 1960s and has become a standby for Springfield cooks, gardeners and restaurants in the years since. Michael Higgins, chef and owner of Maldaner's restaurant downtown, has been sourcing ingredients from Suttill's for decades.

click to enlarge Ron Suttill, the face of the farm for many years, died last spring. Suttill’s continues to grow his favorite varieties because “his spirit is very present around here.”
Ron Suttill, the face of the farm for many years, died last spring. Suttill’s continues to grow his favorite varieties because “his spirit is very present around here.”
"My relationship with the Suttills started a long, long time ago," Higgins explained, "with a farmer named Sam Sabatini who introduced me to Bob Stevens who introduced me to Ron Suttill. These guys all interacted with each other and supported each other and, along with Jefferies Orchard (on Rt. 29), this kind of network developed between the four major produce farmers in our area at that time. We've developed a really close relationship with Suttill's over the years, in part because they were right here in town. It happened gradually, but eventually we were able to begin requesting specialty varieties of tomatoes and things like fava beans."

Before she and her husband, Jordan, decided to close their beloved American Harvest Eatery due to the COVID crisis, chef Aurora Coffey counted on Suttill's Gardens to support the restaurant's ingredient-focused menu. "Jacque and Caitlin have become like family over the years. It's been incredible to see how hard they work. To see Caitlyn grow up over the years and become so incredibly gifted and knowledgeable, to see her working side by side with her mom at the market lugging crates of produce.... They're strong women in every sense of the word."

While the Coffeys pause to figure out how that next chapter in their restaurant journey will evolve, Aurora is confident that the relationship between local farms and restaurants will play an increasingly critical role. "Towards the end of American Harvest the Suttills were growing a lot of specialty items for us. To have that bond of being able to ask them to grow specific varieties for us to work with in our kitchen is priceless. This direct relationship between farmers and restaurant will become increasingly important. We can't let the farms fail because the restaurants are struggling. Restaurants can use small farms as a way to bypass shortages from big box companies, keeping our kitchens supplied while simultaneously helping our local growers."

After Ron's death in the spring of 2019, Caitlyn and Jacque officially took over management of the farm. It was a rough year. The weather was unforgiving, and Jacque had to be hospitalized for a while, leaving Caitlyn alone to work the farm, manage the store, and take the produce to market. They survived, and before the pandemic hit, they had planned to focus this season on expanding their specialty offerings for restaurants. Now they are shifting gears again. "Dad's spirit is very present around here still. There are things we'll always grow because it's what he liked, and that's what we're going to focus on to get through this season."

In the meantime, the Suttill family will keep on growing produce just like they have done for over 100 years. "It's really awesome and fulfilling to know that what started as a women's business has come full circle and is being run by women once again," Caitlyn said. "This isn't just a hobby, this is my life. It's a calling."

The farm store is open seven days a week though Thanksgiving. In addition to selling luscious produce like spinach, rhubarb, tomatoes and onions, they also sell veggie plants, onion sets, and seeds that customers can count on to be well suited to the central Illinois climate. Local honey, frozen pasture-raised meats and eggs are also available for purchase.

Suttill's Gardens is located at 2201 Groth St. and can be contacted at 217-744-9379.

Ashley Meyer lives and gardens in Springfield on the property purchased decades ago by her great-grandfather, Bob Stevens. Meyer is grateful that she can continue to fill her garden and dinner table with seeds and veggies from Suttill's Gardens for years to come.

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